EDITORIAL: Surgical mesh failures a global problem

ON her final night as Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard wrote to Newcastle Herald journalist Joanne McCarthy, to say that it was her “persistence and courage” that had “in large measure” led to the creation of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

As readers of the Herald will know, Ms McCarthy had worked for years to expose the wrongdoings of the region’s Catholic and Anglican churches: her reporting built a well-head of pressure that would only be eased by the top-to-bottom investigation of a royal commission.

As Herald readers will also know, Ms McCarthy has more recently turned her attention to the problems afflicting hundreds – and probably thousands – of Australian women after surgery to insert a class of products known as “transvaginal mesh”.

The first articles covered complaints about a single surgeon, Richard Reid. But it became quickly apparent that this was about more than the actions of a single surgeon, or the failings of a particular product.

Transvaginal mesh products were originally approved to treat urinary incontinence, a common problem for women after childbirth. But from 2001, they were increasingly used to treat a different problem; pelvic organ prolapse. It has since emerged that the American regulator, the Food and Drug Administration or FDA, did little if any checking into the efficacy and safety of these devices until it was far too late.

By 2011, at least eight of 18 devices evaluated by the FDA had been removed from the market, and a range of class action court cases were to follow. Individual court cases have resulted in multi-million dollar awards against doctors and manufacturers alike, and experts say the combined class action payouts could hit $20 billion.

The Australian situation mirrors that of the US, albeit on a smaller scale. And as was the case with the churches prior to the royal commission, the Australian victims of this surgery gone wrong are having to take their chances in an adversarial legal system that seems stacked in favour of the manufacturers and their insurers, and ill-suited to a search for basic truths. The recently announced Senate inquiry is a start, but it may take a more aggressive inquisitorial investigation to get to the bottom of a medical scandal that has used trusting women as guinea pigs. In the meantime, the Herald will help provide these women with a voice.

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