Senate debates

Tuesday, 22 November 2016


Transvaginal Mesh

7:41 pm

Photo of Derryn HinchDerryn Hinch (Victoria, Derryn Hinch's Justice Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Back in the 1950s and 1960s there was a morning sickness pill that women around the world were innocently taking. And they started giving birth to babies with no arms or legs. After an Australian doctor, William McBride, started making the connection between Thalidomide and deformed babies, drugs like Distaval were taken off the market and a shocked world asked: how could it have gone on so long? How could the drug companies in Australia have known for so many months and put so many pregnancies at risk? How could they put money before morality? Profit before pain? How could our medical authorities and health protection agencies have been so ignorant and so complacent? Thalidomide became a dirty word.

I am about to put a four-letter word into the same category as Thalidomide—a word that is not crippling babies, but has crippled thousands of mothers both here and overseas. And once again, the drug companies and the so-called watchdogs like the TGA—the Therapeutic Goods Administration—are letting victims down. That four-letter word is mesh, transvaginal mesh. For about 20 years this plastic or polypropylene mesh has been permanently embedded as post-natal hammocks, slings, netting, for prolapsed organs and incontinence. It is a miracle treatment for male incontinence too, so I have been told.

The mesh is meant to be chemically inert. Before any implanted device gets clearance from the FDA in the United States, there must be guarantees that it is inert, that it is safe, that it will not change after contact with tissue fluids in the body, that it will not produce allergic reactions, that it will not incite inflammation, will not trigger your immune system, will not harbour and breed bacteria and, crucially, will stay anchored wherever in the body it is installed. Tragically, painfully, dangerously, transvaginal mesh does not pass any of those tests. And to make the nightmare worse, these mesh hammocks are anchored deep into thigh and buttocks and pelvic region muscles where nerves grow through the mesh, making it almost impossible to remove when things go wrong. It is like a wire-netting fence getting overgrown with creeper in the backyard.

It gets worse: over time, this 'harmless' plastic netting can become brittle and start to break away in shards and splinters. They start to float around the body, causing inflammation and excruciating pain. No wonder these slings have been called 'a torture device'. There have been cases where a splinter has pierced a woman's vaginal wall and injured her partner during intercourse. No wonder some of these mesh products have been totally banned in Scotland. No wonder there are nearly 100,000 lawsuits pending in the United States over mesh.

Because no Australian surgeons are qualified to attempt total removals, some Australian women have taken out loans, or increased their mortgage, to cover the $35,000 to $40,000 costs of having the operation overseas. I have met and talked to a number of women from all over Australia who have suffered interminable pain, and physical and mental breakdowns, because of these mesh implants. Some have thought that suicide was the only solution, having first been told that there is only a one per cent chance of an adverse reaction. They have since been treated like mushrooms: kept in the dark and fed bullshit by doctors, hospital administrators, the drug companies and even the TGA. At times they have almost believed that their pain and their debilitative condition was psychosomatic or just a way to get more painkillers. That is what the doctors suggested.

Let me just pass on some of these stories, like that of Cass Chisolm, who recently flew from Perth to Melbourne to see me in the hope that somebody—anybody—would listen. She has started an online support group for transvaginal-mesh injured women. There are now more than 200 Australian women who have joined her group. She wrote:

These devices are in a woman's pelvis until she dies! We have been fighting tooth and nail for a suspension on mesh until an investigation is carried out but the doors have been closed on us and we believe that a Senate inquiry is the only way we are going to get to the truth of this situation. Transvaginal mesh damage is a worldwide problem and Australia is lagging in providing the help that women need to get their mesh devices out. There are only a few renowned surgeons in the world who can fully remove them. We need one of these surgeons to come to Australia to remove the devices in the women who are desperate to get them out. The pain is so excruciating for some, that suicide has become a normal thought to ease the burden of living with the suffering for the rest of their life. This has become their only hope for pain relief. I tell you, it is THAT bad.

And I talked to another victim, Toni Shannon. She says:

I seriously cannot believe that from one innocent minor day surgery and under the trust of my surgeon and the experts of the Australian medical system, that I am left with a permanent disability. I am unable to return to work as I cannot sit, stand, walk or drive for more than five minutes without excruciating pain.

From the prime of my life I became crippled in less than three months. Thankfully, a world-renowned mesh removal surgeon from the USA removed my faulty and recalled product.

I now have severe incontinence, nevertheless, this the least of my worries. Worse is that I am made to feel like a criminal by my insurance company because their doctor and our government do not believe that mesh causes these types of injuries. It has left me suicidal and abandoned. In this day and age, and in our country, I can't believe that this is happening.

So a question: why would the TGA allow this, or why would surgeons implant a permanent and life-threatening device into a woman's body for a non-life-threatening problem such as incontinence or prolapse? The foreign body mesh placed through the vagina cannot be safely removed and it is guaranteed to pick up a bacteria which will fester and create a biofilm. Erosion, nerve and organ damage can happen immediately or, as we have seen, can take up to 15 years. It is not like a pacemaker or other foreign body where one would take the risk to save a life. Besides, even a pacemaker can be easily removed if there is a reaction or if there is a fault. She goes on to say:

None of us were warned that removal of mesh is pretty much impossible. Few of us were warned that it was polypropylene. None of us were warned that there were over 100,000 legal cases against mesh and warnings throughout the world. None of us were tested for allergy or reaction to polypropylene before surgery. Most of us were only offered mesh as a treatment.

And with only a one per cent chance of anything going wrong.

I read these women's case histories and also read about some of the other side effects: infection, bleeding, painful sexual intercourse, vaginal scarring, prolapse return, sepsis, immune system rejection, urinary problems and chronic pain. It just goes on and on and on. It is a national disgrace. Just think of the pain of daily living: stabbing pain when sitting on the toilet, stabbing pain when crawling into bed, pain when walking, pain when sitting at a desk.

I was not exaggerating at the start of my speech tonight when I linked transvaginal mesh to thalidomide, because I believe this is one of the greatest medical scandals and abuses of mothers in Australia's history. I shall not let it rest, and I fervently believe that a Senate inquiry is a must. We have to do it.