More than 800 women are suing the NHS and the manufacturers of vaginal mesh implants after suffering serious complications.
Some women reported that implants had cut into their vaginas, with one woman saying she was left in so much pain that she considered suicide. Others have been left unable to walk or have sex, according to the BBC.
However, the medical regulator said that the best current evidence supports the continued use of mesh implants to resolve health conditions that could themselves cause serious distress to patients.
The implants are used to treat incontinence after childbirth or pelvic organ prolapse, where the womb or bladder bulge against the walls of the vagina.
Between April 2007 and March 2015, more than 92,000 women had vaginal mesh implants in England, NHS data shows. About one in 11 women suffered complications. The issue reached prominence in Scotland last year after women with painful and debilitating complications formed a support group.
Claire Cooper began to experience pain three years after her operation. Doctors initially thought the discomfort was related to the removal of her womb, a procedure she had undergone aged 39.
When the pain continued, she said a GP told her she was imagining it. This, and the severity of the pain, resulted in suicidal thoughts, which she said she only overcame because of her children. Her constant pain has forced her husband to become her carer.
Cooper said she and her husband have not had sex for more than four years. “This stuff breaks up marriages,” she told the BBC. “I wouldn’t at all be surprised if there are mesh-injured women that have taken their own lives and didn’t know what the problem was.”
Another woman, Kate Langley, described the surgery as “barbaric”. She told the BBC that a surgeon who examined her “could see the [mesh] tape had come through my vagina – protruding through”.
Data from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) for 2012 to 2017 shows there were 703 adverse incidents relating to patients who had been given the implants to treat stress urinary incontinence, where urine leaks when the bladder is under pressure. A further 346 adverse incidents were reported for patients who had been given a mesh support to prevent pelvic organ prolapse.
The MHRA said the figures did not necessarily indicate a fault with any particular device and said evidence supported the continued use of vaginal mesh surgery for certain conditions.
A spokesman said: “What we have seen, and continue to see, is that evidence supports, and the greater proportion of the clinical community and patients support, the use of these devices in the UK for treatment of the distressing conditions of incontinence and organ prolapse in appropriate circumstances.”
A study published in the Lancet in December found that women who were given mesh implants were roughly three times more likely to suffer complications and twice as likely to need follow-up surgery compared with women who had the traditional version of the surgery, where stitches are used to provide support for the organs.
Rachael Wood, a consultant in public health medicine for NHS National Services Scotland and the lead author of the Lancet study, said: “The results were quite clear that women do suffer a higher complication rate and that it is no more effective. You can make quite a clear recommendation that it shouldn’t be the first line of treatment for prolapse.”
However, Wood said that the results on incontinence surgery were less clear, and for incontinence the study found fewer short-term complications when mesh surgery had been used compared to traditional treatment, which involves major surgery.
She said: “There’s no doubt that some women have had very poor outcomes. It is worth saying that nothing is without risk. There are also bad outcomes from traditional surgery and from doing nothing.”