Obstetric fistulas are an all too common health risk for pregnant women in poor countries who lack access to adequate healthcare. For millions of women in poor, rural communities with little or no access to health services, pregnancy carries a high level of risk.
An obstetric fistula is a hole or passageway between the birth canal and the excretory system, caused by a prolonged, obstructed labor without access to proper medical care or a skilled birth attendant. Often fistulas can resort in the death of the baby, and lasting injury for the mother. The fistula causes an almost constant leak of bodily excretions of urine and/or feces, causing major discomfort. In addition to making it very difficult for a woman to carry out her day-to-day work, the condition can result in a woman being ostracized and stigmatized by those around her because of the foul smell she may carry and her inability to conceive again.
Fistulas are dangerous, but they are also both preventable and treatable. According to the Fistula Foundation, obstetric fistula is “the most devastating and serious of all childbirth injuries,” and it occurs because mothers in poor countries must give birth without medical help. Complications from pregnancy and childbirth continue to be among the leading causes of death and disability for women of child bearing age in poor countries.
Obstetric fistulas were largely eliminated in the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries through improvements in obstetric care and the use of caesarean sections. The first surgical repair for obstetric fistula was developed in 1852 by a doctor in the United States. Now the surgery to repair obstetric fistula costs approximately $450. An estimated 30,000 to 50,000 women a year develop obstetric fistula, according to the Fistula Foundation, but only about 14,000 of those receive treatment.
The prevalence of fistulas in spite of available prevention and treatment points to health system failures in poverty-stricken parts of the world. Good prenatal care, nutrition, the presence of a skilled birth attendant and access to emergency obstetric care can all help prevent obstetric fistulas if accessible to women.
May 23, 2013 was the first International Day to End Obstetric Fistula. More international companies and organizations have begun paying attention to the problem of fistula. Johnson & Johnson in particular has been involved in supporting women suffering from obstetric fistula for more than 20 years through its subsidiary companies, and it recently stepped up its corporate commitment by providing medical supplies to Ethiopia.
– Liza Casabona