Western Australian pelvic mesh victims criticise government response to scandal

SUE Turner and Jeanette McKinnon are the Western Australian women implanted with pelvic mesh devices in public hospitals who refuse to be regarded as unfortunate statistics.

They have made submissions to a Federal Parliament Senate inquiry into pelvic mesh – with a public hearing in Perth on August 25 – listing serious, permanent and life-altering consequences of their surgeries more than a decade ago.

They want answers from WA Health Minister Roger Cook about mesh research allegedly conducted in public hospitals, and whether they are included in mesh trials for which they say they did not consent.

They are scathing of Mr Cook’s commitment to “make some enquiries” about the alleged mesh research trials, in response to questions from Fairfax Media, and have called for a full investigation into whether women were used as “mesh guinea pigs” in public health facilities.  

“Something awful happened to me in 2004 and 2005 after I had mesh put into me. My world’s just so small now,” said Mrs McKinnon, who was 46 in 2004 when she was implanted with an Australian-developed pelvic mesh device at Bentley Hospital.

“It’s like living in hell. I’m dying a very slow and agonising death.”

Victorian Senator Derryn Hinch in February successfully argued for a Senate inquiry into how some pelvic mesh devices for women’s incontinence and prolapse problems after childbirth were cleared for use in Australia over the past two decades. He compared pelvic mesh products to Thalidomide, the drug that led to birth defects in babies in the 1960s.

Senator Derryn Hinch calls for a Senate inquiry into pelvic mesh

The aggressive marketing of many mesh devices in Australia from 2003, without sufficient evidence of their safety and efficacy, led to “one of the greatest medical scandals and abuses of mothers in Australia's history,” Senator Hinch said in a speech to Parliament.

Nearly 200 Western Australian women have responded to a survey conducted by Victorian consumer health advocacy group, Health Issues Centre, for a submission to the inquiry representing the experiences of more than 2200 Australian women implanted with pelvic mesh devices.

More than 700 women are part of a current class action against major pelvic mesh manufacturer, Johnson & Johnson, in the Federal Court in Sydney.

Sue Turner, of Perth, has sought legal advice about a class action against an Australian manufacturing company, after she was implanted with an Australian-developed pelvic mesh device at Armadale Hospital in 2007.

I was never told the device was high risk. I was never told about trials. I would never have consented to being part of a trial.

Sue Turner, who had pelvic mesh surgery in 2007.

“I had a prolapse. I just trusted the doctor and our health system when he told me it would be a pretty easy fix,” Mrs Turner said.

“I was never told the device was high risk. I was never told about trials. I would never have consented to being part of a trial. If I was told there was a risk that if things went wrong I would never have a sex life again, or live a life of sometimes unendurable pain, or be left with mesh and anchors in my body that have moved and embedded into tissue very close to major blood vessels and nerves, I would never have consented. But I wasn’t told.”

In a statement to Fairfax Media Mr Cook said he would ask the Department of Health to “make some enquiries into the research undertaken, and the cases where the implants have been used”, after two senior Western Australian doctors released a series of papers from 2005 about trials in Western Australian public and private hospitals, including Armadale Hospital, using the Australian-developed pelvic mesh device.

In a statement by a WA Health Department unit, Fairfax Media was advised there are no records of research approvals for trials involving surgery on women at public hospitals using the Australian-developed pelvic mesh device.

Mrs Turner and Perth-based Australian Pelvic Mesh Support Group founder Caz Chisholm were angered by Mr Cook’s statements that the “WA Government understands the concern this has caused for some patients”, but “there have been very few complaints received by WA Health and the Health and Disability Complaints Office”.

“What are we? Guinea pigs?” Mrs Turner said.

“I want this stuff out of my body but my doctor’s told me the surgery could be life-threatening. This isn’t about numbers. It’s about how our health system allowed these devices onto the market, and how these doctors were allowed to do this surgery in public hospitals without telling us of the risks.”

Ms Chisholm said the lack of complaints was a consequence of women being told for years that their chronic problems, including often debilitating pain, repeated serious infections, and erosion of mesh into organs including the bladder and bowel, were not linked to mesh surgery, or not being told they were implanted with mesh.

Many women who have presented to their doctors with pain and complications have been told it is not the mesh that is the cause.

Australian Pelvic Mesh Support Group founder Caz Chisholm

“Many women who have presented to their doctors with pain and complications have been told it is not the mesh that is the cause. It is only because of recent media attention about stories of women's pain and complications that women are realising their own complications are identical to the media stories,” Ms Chisholm said.

“The minister says there have been very few complaints by women, but what about the doctors treating the women? Obviously doctors aren’t reporting complications either, and are they supposed to?”

Mrs McKinnon has spent more than a decade on antibiotics.

“I came out of hospital not very well in 2004 and had my first urinary tract infection shortly after that. Then it was one urinary tract infection after another. If I come off the antibiotics I get a urinary tract infection,” she said.

She had another four major surgeries over the following year to relieve the pain and address mesh erosion into organs. 

In 2009 Mrs McKinnon was diagnosed with the auto immune condition lupus, requiring steroid treatment.

“I was normal, healthy and fit before I had that surgery. I’m only 59 and I feel like a 100-year-old. I thought all these years it was just me. It’s just the nightmare that you live.”

In a statement in June the Royal Australian College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists said the majority of women treated with mesh for incontinence or prolapse had “a good long-term result” but “in a small number of cases the complications have been very serious”.

In a submission to the Senate inquiry Victoria’s Health Issues Centre chief executive Danny Vadasz has criticised mesh debate “framed in terms of the good outcomes of the many outweighing the unfortunate experiences of a few”.

“Our health system is built on values such as equity and a universal duty of care, not on a cost/benefit analysis that accepts the unavoidability of collateral damage,” he said, in a Health Issues Centre submission arguing Australian regulators have been “asleep at the wheel” on pelvic mesh.

Do you know more? Email jmccarthy@fairfaxmedia.com.au