Taboo busting. What is the vaginal mesh implant scandal? A guide to the issues

Kelsey Dring, former Wisbech Grammar student

Kelsey Dring, former Wisbech Grammar student - Credit: Archant

For more than two years the Cambs Times has helped catapult the vaginal mesh implant scandal into the national media arena.

Called the biggest women’s health disaster since the morning sickness drug Thalidomide caused babies to be born with deformed limbs, we run a question and answer session to help explain what the Sling The Mesh campaign is about.

Former Wisbech Grammar School pupil, Kelsey Dring, a journalism student at Epsom University, takes up the reigns in a question and answer session.

Kelsey writes:

Dubbed as the biggest health scandal since thalidomide, Sling The Mesh is helping break down the taboo on using the word vagina and why it is okay to discuss intimate female health problems.

There are women’s rights campaigners, and then there are women’s rights campaigners like Kath Sansom.

A high board diving, grime-loving 50 year old, with a no nonsense approach to life, Kath is the voice behind Sling the Mesh, a political campaign which aims to ban vaginal mesh operations.

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Since starting the campaign in 2015, Kath has spread the message of Sling the Mesh across the nation, with appearances on Jeremy Vine, Victoria Derbyshire, and regular features in The Guardian, Take a Break and everything in between.

After years of being silenced, Kath’s savvy use of social media has helped give mesh-injured women a voice, and they sure are using it now.


• Starting at the beginning, for readers who may be unaware of what a vaginal mesh implant is, can you give us an overview of the procedure?

One in three women suffer from incontinence after childbirth and it can be mild, doing things like star jumps in an exercise class. For a majority of women, it’s on impact exercise. Physiotherapy can ease things for up to 80 per cent of women, but if that doesn’t work, you can have surgery with a mesh implant for prolapse, they’ll put in a patch which lifts everything up. For incontinence, it’s a tape sling, which holds up the bladder neck. Both are made from the same plastic mesh material, polypropylene, which is used for drinks bottles. The problem with this material is that it can shrink, twist, degrade or leak toxins. No amount of good surgery can account for an implant that can shrink inside the pelvic region. It causes injury to internal organs, nerves and muscles, and that’s why women are in so much pain.

• Around 7,000 women undergo the procedure each year, yet many women are unaware of its potentially life damaging effects. Why do you think awareness is so low?

The surgeons aren’t giving fully informed consent. When women go in saying I heard about the problems in the media, some surgeons will say ‘I don’t use the mesh in the media.’ There’s something called hospital coding, and in that, incontinence mesh is officially called ‘introduction of tension free vaginal tape,’ so it doesn’t use the word mesh. That’s why surgeons think they have the right to say they aren’t using the mesh in the media. Women believe them, and they have the operation.

• Why do you think in 2017 it is still considered taboo to talk about vaginal problems?

Historically women get embarrassed about stuff. This is our most private of parts, and I think that’s another reason why this issue has been kept under wraps for so long. But why? It is just taboo. This campaign is breaking the taboo on sexual health, on using the word vagina, on being aware of problems and it being okay to discuss them. What has overwhelmingly come out of all of this is the utter disrespect for women, the utter lack of listening to women. We all know if this much pain and devastation was going on in a simple operation for men, this would have stopped years ago.

• Why is it taking so long for government to respond to what has been dubbed as the biggest health scandal since thalidomide?

A big issue is that NHS accountants see this as a cheap fix - they want to preserve mesh because its quicker than traditional surgeries that take three hours and three nights in hospital. You can see a big difference in sums, but they’re just looking short term, they think quick fix. But long term, mesh injured women cost more because of painkillers, nerve blockers, antibiotics. Recently women sent me their monthly medication, and I added it up - one woman over 11 years had cost the NHS £50,000. It can range from anything from £70 to £300 a month, just for the medication cost of a mesh injured woman.

•Recently you held a virtual rally on social media by Tweeting 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister and her health secretaries. Do you think this is the future of campaigning, after #slingthemesh trended on Twitter the night of the rally?

Whether you like it or not, social media is the way to campaign, definitely. You have to shame them into realizing it’s a problem, and the best way to do that is Twitter. You’ll get all sorts of people joining your campaign, that you wouldn’t even know you needed to reach out to, but it does. Social media is important in this country for getting people’s voiced heard - for corruption, for social change, for anything that’s wrong, you’ve got to get the media behind you.

• Aside from ending vaginal mesh implants, what are your goals for the future?

Seeing women empowered into action through Sling the Mesh has been incredible to watch. I want to continue that empowerment for women but move it into breaking taboos around domestic abuse. The insidious hard to prove kind. Specifically along the lines that you don’t have to be hit to be abused.