Women's landmark victory over Johnson & Johnson in pelvic mesh case

22 November 2019
Women's landmark victory over Johnson & Johnson in pelvic mesh case
Three years ago, on November 22, I made a speech in the Senate which I hope helped change, helped improve, the lives of thousands of Australian women. And, since then, it has garnered attention around the world. In the US, in Scotland, in Sweden, in New Zealand.
I started that Senate speech by saying that back in the 1950s and 1960s there was a morning sickness pill that women around the world were innocently taking. And they started giving birth to babies with no arms or legs.
After an Australian doctor, William McBride, started making the connection between Thalidomide and deformed babies, drugs like Distaval were taken off the market and a shocked world asked: How could it have gone on so long? How could the drug companies in Australia have known for so many months and put so many pregnancies at risk? How could they put money before morality? Profit before pain? How could our medical authorities and health protection agencies have been so ignorant? Or complacent?
Thalidomide became a dirty word.
I said that in the Senate and then put a four-letter word into the same category as Thalidomide – a word that is not crippling babies but has crippled thousands of mothers both here and overseas.
And once again, the drug companies and the so-called watchdogs like the TGA – the Therapeutic Goods Administration – let victims down.
That four-letter word is ‘mesh’. Transvaginal mesh. For more than twenty years, this plastic (or polypropylene) mesh has been permanently embedded as post-natal hammocks, slings, netting, for prolapsed organs and incontinence. A miracle treatment for male incontinence too, reportedly.
This mesh is meant to be chemically inert. Before any implanted device gets clearance from the FDA in the US there must be guarantees that it is inert, it is safe, that it won’t change after contact with tissue fluids in the body, won’t produce allergic reactions, won’t incite inflammation, won’t trigger your immune system, won’t harbour and breed bacteria. And, crucially, will stay anchored wherever in the body it is installed.
Tragically, painfully, dangerously, transvaginal mesh, did not and still does not pass those tests. Has never passed those tests.
And to make the nightmare worse, the mesh hammocks are anchored deep into thighs and buttocks, and pelvic region, muscles where nerves grow through the mesh making it almost impossible to remove when things go wrong. I think I said it was like a wire netting fence getting overgrown with creeper in the backyard.
But it gets worse. Over time, this ‘harmless’ plastic netting can become brittle and start to break away in shards and splinters. They start to float around the body. Causing inflammation and excruciating pain. No wonder these slings have been called ‘a torture device’.
There have been cases where a splinter has pierced a woman’s vaginal wall and injured her partner during intercourse. Cutting his penis.
No wonder some of these mesh products have been banned in Scotland. No wonder there are thousands of lawsuits pending around the world.
Because no Australian surgeons are qualified to attempt total removals, some Australian women have taken out loans, or increased their mortgage, to cover the $35,000 to $50,000 costs of the operation overseas.
I have met and talked to a number of women from all over Australia who have suffered interminable pain, and physical and mental breakdowns, because of these mesh implants. Some have thought suicide the only solution.
Having first been told there was only a 1% chance of an adverse reaction, they have since been treated like mushrooms: Kept in the dark and fed bullbleep by doctors, hospital administrators, the drug companies, even the TGA.
At times, they have almost believed their pain and debilitating conditions were psychosomatic or just a way to get more painkillers. That’s what some doctors suggested.
Let me pass on some of those stories. Like Cass Chisholm who flew from Perth to Melbourne to see me – along with along with Kim Blieschke from SA -- in the desperate hope somebody would listen. They were involved in an online support group for transvaginal mesh-injured women.
Cass wrote: “These devices are in a woman's pelvis until she dies! We have been fighting tooth and nail for a suspension on mesh until an investigation is carried out. The pain is so excruciating for some, that suicide has become a normal thought to ease the burden of living with the suffering for the rest of their life. This has become their only hope for pain relief. I tell you, it is THAT bad’.
And I talked to another victim, Toni Shannon. She said: “I seriously cannot believe that from one innocent minor day surgery and under the trust of my surgeon and the experts of the Australian medical system, that I am left with a permanent disability. I am unable to return to work as I cannot sit, stand, walk or drive for more than five minutes without excruciating pain. From the prime of my life I became crippled in less than three months.”
I read their case histories and some of the other side effects: Infection, bleeding, painful sexual intercourse, vaginal scarring, prolapse return, sepsis, immune system rejection, urinary problems, chronic pain. And the pain of daily living. Stabbing pain when sitting on the toilet, when crawling into bed, walking, sitting at a desk…. It just goes on. And on. It is a national disgrace.
I was not exaggerating when, in the Senate, I linked transvaginal mesh to Thalidomide and said this is one of the greatest medical scandals and abuse of mothers in Australian history.
Today, these brave women, won a marathon court case against Johnson and Johnson in Sydney thanks to Shine lawyers.

This was my proudest time in the Senate. Brave victims, I salute you. DH


Make a Difference.

We can’t do it without you. Get involved and help make a difference.