As Shadow Minister for Public Health, Sharon responded on behalf of the Opposition to a debate on the impact of vaginal mesh secured by Emma Hardy MP. In the debate, Sharon called for a pause on the use of the product whilst NICE update their guidance and for a public inquiry into the issue to fully understand the scale of what has happened and the women affected.
You can read the full debate here in Hansard: Vaginal Mesh Westminster Hall Debate 18.10.17
You can read Sharon's contribution to the debate below.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) for securing this very important debate and for her excellent contribution. The Opposition fully support her four asks of the Government.
I commend all other speakers for their thoughtful and passionate contributions, and I thank their constituents who allowed their experiences to be shared with us. I especially want to thank Kath Sansom, who leads the Sling the Mesh campaign, for all her hard work in uniting the women affected by vaginal mesh implants and for raising awareness of the tragic impact that mesh implants have had on so many lives. I also thank other hon. Members who have spoken out about this issue for such a long time—in particular, my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith), who spoke with such knowledge and passion. It was vital that he took part in this debate, and I thank him for everything he has done on the issue.
The experiences we have heard about today are incredibly distressing. I have the utmost sympathy for those suffering because of mesh implants. We are here to stand up for those women, and we seek answers and Government action on their behalf.
Let us start at the beginning, when women are told that the best course of action is to have a mesh implant. They are told that the procedure is quick and cheap, but, as we have heard, the low financial cost of the implants is far outweighed by the huge human cost to those women for the rest of their lives.
The NHS and the MHRA say that the risk of complications is low, at 1% to 3%, but a report by nine leading medics put the risk much higher, at 15%. If leading bodies and medical professionals cannot agree, how can patients be expected to make informed decisions? Health professionals are supposed to outline clearly and explicitly the risks of any operation that a patient is asked to undergo to ensure they can weigh up the risks and benefits for themselves.
As we have heard, the mesh implants are made of the same material as some drinks bottles. They can shrink, twist and curl at the edges. The material can degrade, cut through internal tissues, poke through the vaginal wall and stick to organs, causing pain, incontinence, urinary infections and a loss of sex life. Marriages have been destroyed and people have been left unable to walk, work or even to pick up their young children. Knowing those risks, how many in this Chamber would consent to a mesh implant? It is time to take women’s health and wellbeing seriously. They need to be listened to. Their voices need to be heard and their concerns believed so we can put right this injustice and prevent it from going on any longer.
Since this debate was announced, I have been inundated with emails and tweets telling harrowing stories of how women have been affected by vaginal mesh implants. I am sure everyone in the Chamber has received the same sort of emails. Just last night—very late in the day—I received an email from Sling the Mesh with an attachment containing 210 emails out of the 400 it received following the Minister’s answer to my question during Health questions last week, when she said there is not enough evidence to ban the mesh. Those emails are packed with evidence, and I am very happy to pass them on to the Minister. They all detail how the implants have been life-changing, but unfortunately not for the better.
Julie has had to give up her job as a paramedic, and is now trapped in a world of pain and medication. Kath has lost her passion for mountain biking because it is now impossible to get on the bike. Suzi says that her pain consumes her every day.
Another woman, Tina, also shared her experiences. For four years, she went to her GP and accident and emergency several times with excruciating pain, and was sent from pillar to post. She was told that the pain was due to irritable bowel syndrome, painful bladder syndrome and a slipped disc, and that the mesh implant was absolutely not the problem. After four years of searching for answers, she went private and spoke to a surgeon who finally believed her pleas about her pain and partially removed the mesh. She says that her recovery has been successful and she is no longer in pain, which is excellent, but four years is such a long time to lose. We know that many, many women are unable to go private to end their trauma, but they should not have to do so.
After this debate, there is a lobby of mesh-injured women, which I encourage the Minister to attend. We will be joined by Dr Robert Bendavid, who has flown in overnight from Canada. That shows that this really is a worldwide scandal. Many countries, including our own, are just waking up to the horrors of vaginal mesh. In Australia the Senate is holding an inquiry, and in the US vaginal mesh has been considered a high-risk device for nearly a decade. As we heard, vaginal mesh has been suspended in Scotland since 2014, yet across the border the Government have rejected a ban in England and have failed to empathise with the approximately 8,000 women who have been admitted to hospital with a mesh complication. That is not surprising, considering that just 1,000 mesh admissions have been reported to the MHRA as a mesh-related issue. Surgeons are clearly reluctant to report that mesh is the issue, which lets their patients down and distresses them further.
Our next concern is what the Government are going to do to support women who have had to leave because of the effect of vaginal mesh. Most GPs do not attribute the pain to the mesh, so it is very difficult for those women to claim personal independence payments, disability living allowance or any other benefits. They have to rely on their families’ finances, which is incredibly frustrating and distressing to the victims, especially those whose families are unable to support them. We must also consider the women who are suffering in silence and have not come forward yet because of the intimate nature of the issue. After hearing of the experiences of others, some women may be embarrassed or just too scared to come forward for fear of being dismissed as a hysterical woman.
At Health questions last week, the Minister said that a NICE update on vaginal mesh implants is expected at the beginning of next year—my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd also mentioned that—but that is too little, too late for the approximately 200 women who will get a vaginal mesh implant on the NHS between now and then and the thousands of women who have already been affected. One of my constituents reached out to me to say that she is worried because she is due to have that surgery soon, and she asked for my advice. Obviously, we cannot give medical advice, so I told her to watch this debate and speak to a surgeon. If there is a chance that a car or an aircraft could cause harm, it would be immediately recalled while the problem was investigated. Why does the precautionary principle not also apply when the health and wellbeing of thousands of women is in jeopardy?
Last week, the Minister said there was not enough evidence to warrant asking the MHRA to reclassify these procedures, but there was so little evidence to justify beginning them in the first place. What exactly is she waiting for? Given what we have heard today, I hope she will recognise the urgent need for action on this issue and justice for those women. I hope she will take these calls back to the Department of Health and ensure that no more women are subject to the risks of vaginal mesh implants. That is why the Opposition are calling for an urgent public inquiry into the number of women adversely affected by vaginal mesh implants and into why the safety of so many women was disregarded. We urge NHS England and NICE to act immediately to update the guidance and suspend the use of vaginal mesh today. It is our duty to ensure that the failings are understood and corrected so that they never happen again. That should be a matter of urgency for the Minister and the Government, and I trust she will respond positively to these calls.