Tragic blind spot in health care for women
A little known campaign to prevent crippling childbirth injuries
could spare tens of thousands of women each year from incapacitating
health problems and social ostracism caused by obstetric fistula.
"It is better to be blind than have fistula," said one young woman.
"...at least people help you." Fistula - now unknown to most people
in the western world - is an entirely preventable medical and social
tragedy. Caused by complications during childbirth, when emergency
obstetric care is not available, the condition results in long-term,
chronic incontinence and can lead to kidney disease and even death.
Damage to the nerves in the legs leaves some women unable to walk. In
95 per cent of cases, the baby dies. Without treatment, prospects for
work and family life are greatly diminished. Women suffering from
fistulas are ostracized by their communities and abandoned by their
families. Many become beggars and eventually die from untreated
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that more than two
million women are living with fistula in developing countries and
that an additional 50,000 to 100,000 new cases occur each year.
Doctors campaigning to bring the dimensions of fistula to world
attention say it could be prevented if young girls married later, had
adequate medical care during pregnancy and received emergency
obstetric care if they developed complications. In developing
countries however, only 58 per cent of women deliver their babies
with the assistance of a professional midwife or doctor and only 40
per cent give birth in a hospital or health centre.
"Obstetric fistula is a double sorrow because women lose their
babies and they lose their dignity," says Thoraya Ahmed Obaid,
Executive Director of United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). "UNFPA
hopes that the Global Campaign to End Fistula will eventually make
fistula as rare in Africa and Asia as it is in other parts of the
- At risk are women living in remote rural areas with
little access to medical care.
- A Global Campaign to End Fistula, launched two years
ago by UNFPA and global partners, is able to provide only partial
support to about 30 countries, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa.
- It costs only $300 to restore the health and dignity
of a woman suffering from fistula, but that's way beyond the means of
people in countries where annual income is much less than that.
- In February 2005, the Global Campaign and the
Nigerian government supported restorative surgery for 545 women in
just two weeks. Nigeria may have as many as 800,000 women with
The success rate for fistula repair can be as high as
90 per cent.
- If current demand for family planning services in
developing countries was were met, maternal deaths and injuries could
be reduced by 20 per cent or more.
- Fistula has been eliminated in Europe and North
America through improved obstetric care.
For further information
United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA):
Micol Zarb (New York), Media Officer, Tel: +1 212 297-5042, E-mail: