Women injured by vaginal mesh here have borrowed up to €30,000 from banks and credit unions in some cases to travel abroad to get their device removed, the Oireachtas health committee has been told.
The committee heard from the HSE, as well as patient advocacy groups Mesh Ireland and Mesh Survivors Ireland about the issues with vaginal mesh, a permanent implant inserted to treat pelvic organ prolapse as well as urinary incontinence.
These devices have caused organ and spinal cord damage, and torn tissue, and triggered class actions in the UK and lawsuits in the US. The HSE was unable to provide an estimated figure of mesh injured patients in Ireland.
Patient advocates told the Oireachtas committee that Irish patients injured by the deteriorating mesh are financing the full removal of their own devices abroad.
Dr Susan O'Sullivan, a urogynecologist from the HSE Cork Mesh centre, told the politicians that total removal is a complicated procedure, and that it is not always clear if a patient's symptoms are directly related to the mesh.
The mood here "remains anchored in talking up partial removals as the best alternative," according to Mary McLoughlin from the group Mesh Ireland.
“The principles of autonomy and informed consent tell us that women have a right to have the option of full and safe removal of their implants on the public healthcare system."
Access to the Treatment Abroad Scheme is a “Catch-22” while the HSE’s official position is that these surgeries are available in Ireland, she added.
The surgical community is also “deeply attached” to partial removals, she added, describing them as its “historical comfort zone".
She added: "In the hands of the right surgeon, this is an established surgical procedure which lasts a few hours, is affordable to the State, and is the choice of many.”
Dr O'Sullivan denied there is reluctance or hesitancy among doctors towards the total removal of the devices.
“We definitely will remove the mesh when we are convinced that it is the absolute root of problems and when we are very confident that it is going to make the woman better.
"The concern is that removal can make things an awful lot worse and can leave the woman much worse off afterward,” she said, adding that she has treated some women who came back from abroad with “dreadful complications” after total mesh removal. She later clarified it was two women over the last five years.
Meanwhile, Mesh Survivors Ireland also asked when the translabial scanners in Dublin and Cork will be available. These scanners can see mesh and mesh remnants unlike conventional scanners which are not sensitive enough.
“There is an anxious waiting list of mesh-injured ladies awaiting life-changing answers as to what damage their mesh is causing internally so as to direct future intervention to ease their plight," it said.
The group also called for financial assistance for those travelling from other parts of the country to Cork or Dublin, medical cards for all women from recognised mesh-injured pathways, and an apology from the HSE and Department of Health.