Obstetric fistula

Overview

Obstetric fistula is one of the most serious and tragic childbirth injuries. It is a hole between the birth canal and bladder or rectum caused by prolonged, obstructed labour, without access to timely, high-quality medical treatment. It leaves women leaking urine, faeces or both, and often leads to chronic medical problems, depression, social isolation and deepening poverty.

More than 2 million women in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, the Arab region, and Latin America and the Caribbean are estimated to be living with fistula, and some 50,000 to 100,000 new cases develop annually. Yet fistula is almost entirely preventable. Its persistence is a sign of global inequality and an indication that health systems are failing to protect the health and human rights of the poorest and most vulnerable women and girls.

As the leader of Campaign to End Fistula, UNFPA provides strategic vision, technical guidance and support, medical supplies, training and funds for fistula prevention, treatment and social reintegration programmes. UNFPA also strengthens reproductive health care and emergency obstetric services to prevent fistula from occurring in the first place.

How it happens

Without emergency intervention, obstructed labour can last for days, resulting in death or severe disability. The obstruction can cut off blood supply to tissues in the woman’s pelvis. When the dead tissue falls away, she is left with a hole – a fistula, in medical terms – in the birth canal.

Tragically, there is a strong association between fistula and stillbirth, with research indicating approximately 90 per cent of women who develop obstetric fistula end up delivering a stillborn baby.

Obstetric fistula has been essentially eliminated in industrialized countries through the availability of timely, high-quality medical treatment for prolonged and obstructed labour – namely, Caesarean section. Today, obstetric fistula occurs mostly among women and girls living in extreme poverty, especially those living far from medical services. Childbearing in adolescent girls before the pelvis is fully developed, as well as malnutrition, small stature and generally poor health conditions are among the physiological factors contributing to obstructed labour. However, any woman may experience obstructed labor, including older women who have already had babies.

Consequences for women

Left untreated, obstetric fistula causes chronic incontinence and can lead to a range of other physical ailments, including frequent infections, kidney disease, painful sores and infertility. The physical injuries can also lead to social isolation and psychological harm: Women and girls with fistula are often unable to work, and many are abandoned by their husbands and families, and ostracized by their communities, driving them further into poverty. 

The continued occurrence of obstetric fistula is a human rights violation, reflecting the marginalization of those affected and the failure of health systems to meet their needs. Their isolation means they often go unnoticed by policymakers, and little action is taken to address or prevent their condition. As a result, women and girls suffer needlessly, often for years, with no hope in sight. 

Treatment, reintegration and follow-up

Reconstructive surgery can usually repair a fistula. Unfortunately, the women and girls affected by this injury often do not know that treatment is possible, cannot afford it or cannot reach the facilities where it is available. There is also a shortage of highly trained and skilled surgeons to perform the repairs. Tragically, at the current rate of progress, most women and girls living with fistula today will die before ever being treated.

Counselling and other forms of support – such as livelihood skills, literacy, job training and health education – may also be necessary to help women reintegrate into their communities, rebuild their lives, and regain their dignity and hope after surviving fistula.

Follow-up is also crucial for all women and girls who have had fistula repair surgery, helping to ensure they do not develop the injury again during subsequent births, and helping to protect the survival and health of both mother and baby. 

Prevention is key

Prevention is the key to ending fistula. Ensuring skilled birth attendance at all births and providing timely and high quality emergency obstetric care for all women who develop complications during delivery would make fistula as rare in developing countries as it is in the industrialized world.

Additionally, providing family planning to those who want it could reduce maternal disability and death by at least 20 per cent.

The underlying factors that contribute to women’s and girls’ marginalization – including lack of access to quality health services and education, persistent poverty, gender and socioeconomic inequality, child marriage, adolescent pregnancy, and failure to protect human rights – must also be addressed.

UNFPA's response

In 2003, UNFPA and its partners launched the global Campaign to End Fistula, which is now active in more than 50 countries, working to prevent and treat fistula, and to rehabilitate and empower fistula survivors. Over the last 14 years, UNFPA, as the leader of the global Campaign, has directly supported more than 85,000 surgical repairs for women and girls, and partner agencies have supported thousands more.

Thousands of women and girls have also received reintegration services, including skills training and small grants to start businesses, with support from the Maternal Health Thematic Fund. And UNFPA has supported the training of thousands of health workers, including surgeons, midwives, nurses and community health workers. These health professionals all play a crucial role in treating fistula and preventing its occurrence in the first place.

In 2013, the United Nations commemorated the first International Day to End Obstetric Fistula, on 23 May, to raise awareness of this issue and mobilize support around the globe. The International Day to End Obstetric Fistula is observed annually around the world by partners committed to ending fistula. In 2016, on the occasion of the day, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called upon the world to end fistula within a generation, a message reiterated by UNFPA's Executive Director.

This bold new vision raises the bar for addressing fistula, putting it on the same level as other major global initiatives, including ending preventable maternal, ending HIV, ending female genital mutilation and  eradicating polio. This goal was also reiterated in a report from the Secretary-General and a Resolution on ending fistula that was passed in the UN General Assembly in late 2016. The resolution was co-sponsored by more than 130 countries. 

Updated 18 May 2017.

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