The Essure contraceptive device has been hitting the headlines again this week amidst concerns over safety and potential side-effects. Even Erin Brockovich, the consumer and environmental activist, has lent her voice to the debate. So – what is it, why is it used and what are the problems with it?

What is Essure?

The media have been referring to Essure as 'a contraceptive implant'. This may cause confusion with the commonly used contraceptive implant that is inserted into the upper arm and can remain safely in situ for up to three years. The two are very different; Essure is a permanent method of sterilisation with which, so far, around 1,500 women in the UK have been fitted.

Implantation is quick and non-surgical. Essure is a series of tiny coils, which are inserted into the fallopian tubes to prevent the progress of sperm. There is no need for a woman's fallopian tubes to be blocked, tied or cut.

While it is permanent and irreversible, it often appears to be an appealing alternative to surgical sterilisation.

Essure complications

There has been agitation in the USA over the safety of Essure for several years. Brockovich has been one of the loudest voices in this campaign, asking for it to be removed from the market; a Facebook group called E-Hell, with nearly 9,000 members, is also strongly opposed to the product.

Victims of complications talk of pain, bleeding and bloating, but are also concerned that the device has the potential to puncture the fallopian tubes and nearby organs.

The UK government's Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) have decided to monitor the use of Essure in the UK and to catalogue all side-effects experienced by UK users. However, it insists that it is safe and there are no plans to withdraw it. As the global debate continues over the safety of other medical devices such as vaginal mesh, the relationship between patients, manufacturers, the medical profession and governments is being continually reassessed.