Tuesday, 7 February 2017
I stand here tonight to follow up on a shocking medical scandal in this country. In an adjournment speech last November I brought up the issue of a health problem that had crippled hundreds of women. I now discover it is thousands of Australian women. I said at the time that I believed it was the biggest medical scandal in this country since the thalidomide tragedies of the late 1950s and 1960s. Sadly, it was not hyperbole; I was not exaggerating.
During our break, I have corresponded with and met with more victims of a scourge known as transvaginal mesh—the polypropylene sling used on women, mainly mothers, for incontinence and prolapse conditions; women as young as 30. Since that Senate speech I have been flooded with emails and tweets from victims from all over the world—the United States, Canada and the UK. In Scotland they have banned, or at least suspended, the use of this mesh. I have read more of their case histories. Some of the side-effects have been infection, bleeding, painful sexual intercourse, vaginal scarring. The pain of daily living has included stabbing pain when sitting on the toilet, when crawling into bed, when walking and even when sitting at a desk.
Last month in Sydney I sat with a mesh victim—30-year-old former legal secretary Joanne Mannion. I say 'sat'; she perched in pain on the edge of a chair until after about 50 minutes she could not sustain it. She had come in from Cronulla to meet me. I saw her pain and offered her a cab fare home. Her response really hit me. She said, 'Thanks, but no thanks. I'd rather take the train because it's more comfortable standing up.' Her pain was so relentless, her condition so debilitating that she sold her apartment to get the $50,000 needed to fly to the US, where one doctor has had some success in removing mesh which is more than embedded. It is now fused with damaged nerves and muscles. In a vulgar simile, I admit, it would be like trying to remove rusting chicken wire from a hen house which has had vines and weeds growing over it for years.
There are now grave concerns about not only the mesh—which is breaking down and floating around victims' bodies—but the metal anchoring hooks that have been harshly and permanently implanted in muscles in the buttocks, pelvis and thighs. It goes on and on. As I said in November, it is a national disgrace and it must be stopped.
There are heaps of questions that must be answered. Why would the TGA allow surgeons to permanently implant a life-threatening device into a woman's body. Why would a surgeon embrace this technique so enthusiastically? What safety and efficacy trials were run? Aren't such devices meant to be made of inert materials? They started using versions of these mesh slings here in around 2000. It may have gone back as far as 1996. The TGA began monitoring the mesh in 2008 after complaints. The FDA issued a warning several years later, and mesh manufacturer Johnson & Johnson withdrew some products in 2012. In 2013, the TGA launched a more extensive investigation of about 100 products. In 2014-15, about 80 those products were withdrawn.
I believe there must be at least a moratorium on the use of this mesh. There must be a Senate inquiry. One of biggest problems, I believe, is that mainstream media—and maybe this applies as well to some politicians—are either ignorant of the issue or maybe they are embarrassed because it includes the word 'vagina'. 'It is a women's plumbing thing; it is secret women's business.' I even had a senior radio producer tell my staff it was not an appropriate issue for me to raise when they wanted to know what topics I was going to talk about, even though women probably make up a majority of the station's listeners. That is why I applaud the Herald Sun in Melbourne, and other News Limited papers around the country, who featured recently a story about it under the headline 'Outcry over implant: Inquiry mooted as class action takes on pharma giant'. The 'inquiry mooted' is the one that I am pushing for, and the 'class action' is being run by Shine Lawyers, who are going to court against Johnson & Johnson later this year in a case that will run for more than 20 weeks.
It is now estimated that 100,000 Australian women are carrying this plastic time bomb. At least 4,000 are damaged. I suspect the figure could go as high as 10,000. In the United States the number of women taking legal action is 107,000. In this country, women in pain are being told by their GPs that it was psychosomatic or that it was just some postnatal depression. Women were never told the size of the risks. I know of one case where a surgeon glibly told a patient that the surgery was 'virtually a walk in the park'. He said, 'Within weeks you'll be like a 16-year-old again.' This has caused marriages to break up, families to be shattered and bank accounts to be depleted because the victims cannot work. I say to you again: it is one of the greatest medical scandals. We have a new federal health minister, and I tell you: Minister Hunt, I am coming to get you. (Time expired)