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Recognizing Obstetric Fistula So We Can Eliminate It Once and For All

Fistula surgery patient in West Africa. Credit: Worldwide Fistula Fund.

Can you imagine a pregnant woman you know going into labor, experiencing an unexpected obstruction, and having no medical personnel to help?  If she survived, she would, no doubt, have internal tearing that would leave her leaking urine and waste.  It’s called obstetric fistula.

Luckily for women in the U.S. and other developed countries, obstetric fistula was eliminated at the end of the 19th century.  But in developing countries, particularly in Africa, it is an everyday occurrence affecting more than two million women who live with obstetric fistula.  Fistula persists where women lack access to medical care and where malnutrition rates are high; poor nutrition leads to complications in childbirth.

Can we eliminate fistula?  Many think we can.  The United Nations designated May 23, 2013, the first-ever International Day to End Obstetric Fistula. This follows a decade-long campaign within the organization that has made real progress on ending the condition.

The Campaign to End Fistula united more than 80 global organizations, including The Fistula Foundation, Worldwide Fistula Fund, and Family Care International—all Aid for Africa members–to prevent, treat and rehabilitate many thousands of fistula survivors throughout the world.

Patient awaits fistula surgery. Credit: Lawrence William, The Fistula Foundation.

The Fistula Foundation provides fistula care in almost 20 countries, half in Africa. It supports innovative approaches to that care, like a fleet of all-terrain ambulance vehicles that can transport patients in rural areas with no paved roads to hospitals for treatment. It uses traditional African teaching methods to reintegrate women who have received fistula treatment back into their communities in partnership with Aid for Africa member Tostan.

In 2012, the Worldwide Fistula Fund, which works in five African countries, opened a state-of-the-art fistula treatment center in rural Niger, West Africa, which serves the region.  The goal: cure 2,500 women of fistula in five years. The facility provides prevention and rehabilitation programs to help victims become economically independent.

As the first international organization committed to maternal health, Family Care International has been improving  the quality of maternal care in hundreds of rural health centers in Africa by educating and motivating village chiefs and religious leaders to support fistula care.

Let’s hope that the first International Day to End Obstetric Fistula will lose its designation in the not-too-distant future.