United Nations: 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.

The Story

"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 infections.

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 world."

The Context

For further information United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA): Micol Zarb (New York), Media Officer, Tel: +1 212 297-5042, E-mail: zarb@unfpa.org