Women protesting

Vaginal mesh safety review highlights failures in UK health system

A Sling the Mesh protest in May 2019

Haydn Wheeler/Alamy

The UK’s “unresponsive and defensive” healthcare system has failed thousands of women who developed life-changing conditions after pelvic mesh surgery, according to a review into the treatment.

“The report is hard hitting, harrowing and recognises the total failure in patient safety, regulation and oversight in the UK,” Kath Sansom of campaign group Sling the Mesh said in a statement.

The Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review, announced by then-health secretary Jeremy Hunt in 2018, has involved two years of data gathering from women who received vaginal and other pelvic mesh implants, mostly to treat stress urinary incontinence and prolapse that developed after childbirth.


Many women went on to develop chronic pain, nerve damage, bowel conditions, recurring infections and mobility issues, among others. The mesh can become embedded in surrounding tissues, making it very difficult to remove. It is unclear whether the mesh can change in shape or size after it is implanted, and whether chemicals from the mesh can trigger immune conditions, which have been experienced by some women.

The number of women affected by these complications is unknown, but thousands have joined support and campaign groups. Many women weren’t told about the risks of the procedure, and describe how their symptoms and complaints were dismissed by doctors as normal consequences of childbirth or menopause.

“The narrative is common,” says Sohier Elneil, a urogynaecologist and uroneurologist in London, who says she comes across similar cases on a daily basis. “Patient safety must be key to everything we do,” she says. “It should be a given, but, quite clearly from the report, it hasn’t been.”

Women that have been affected are due an apology from the UK government, write the authors of the report. Separate, specialist centres, offering medical and social care, should be set up to support people who have been affected by each of these issues, who should also be offered financial redress and support, the authors recommend.

“While the NHS is a beacon of brilliant care and safety in the majority of cases, as this report demonstrates we must do better,” said health minister Nadine Dorries in a statement. “Our health system must learn from those it has failed, ensure those who have felt unheard have a voice and ultimately, that patients are better protected in future.”

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