Press Release

Obstetric Fistula: United Nations and International Obstetricians Meet to Combat Hidden Disease

16 July 2001

United Nations, New York – The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the International Federation of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (FIGO) are meeting in London this week to discuss obstetric fistula, a neglected disease with severe physical and social consequences that afflicts young women in developing countries.

The meeting will be held in central London on 18 and 19 July and brings together experts in obstetric fistula from Africa, the United Kingdom and beyond. (For more information and to arrange interviews, please contact Corrie Shanahan at the Clifton Ford Hotel in London; phone numbers are listed above.)

Obstetric fistula occurs as a result of a prolonged and obstructed labour. The pressure caused by the obstructed labour permanently damages the tissues of the internal passages of the bladder and rectum. The woman is left permanently incontinent, unable to hold urine or faeces, which leak out through her vagina. The smell of urine and the wetness are humiliating and uncomfortable and lead to frequent bladder infections and ulcerations.

The social consequences are equally severe. The woman is often abandoned by her husband and community. Her baby usually dies as a result of the obstructed labour. She is considered unclean and not allowed to prepare food or live at home. In addition, in some countries, the local belief is that obstetric fistula is a result of marital infidelity or sexually transmitted disease, compounding extreme physical discomfort with a burden of shame and guilt.

Obstetric fistulas were common throughout Europe and North America until the mid-20th century; they are now unheard of in developed countries. Obstetric fistulas are found most often among very poor women and affect adolescents disproportionately. Young girls are often not fully developed at the time of their first pregnancy. Early marriage, malnutrition and poor access to emergency obstetric care all lead to obstetric fistulas.

The disease affects some 2 million women, almost all in developing countries, predominantly in Africa and the Indian sub-continent. Each year another 50,000 to 100,000 more are affected. These figures are based on reported cases of fistula, the true number is thought to be much higher.

Fistula can be surgically repaired, but successful surgery requires a trained surgeon and attentive post-operative care. The operation costs about USD $150, beyond the means of the women affected. There are currently two centres in Africa specializing in fistula repair, one in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and the other in Northern Nigeria.

The London meeting seeks to raise funds for training and equipment in hospitals in Ethiopia and Nigeria. It also aims to increase awareness of the effects of fistula and to increase the availability of treatment for women suffering from this severe disability.

The meeting in London will involve experts in obstetric fistula including:

Dr. Naren Patel, Vice President of FIGO;

Ms. Fatima Mirsho of UNFPA Ethiopia;

Dr. Catherine Hamlin, founder of the Fistula Hospital in Addis Ababa;

Dr. (Sr.) Ann Ward of St Luke’s Hospital Nigeria;

Ms. Nana Tanko, president of the Nigerian National Fistula Foundation.

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UNFPA is the largest internationally funded source of population assistance to developing countries. The Fund assists developing countries to improve reproductive health and family planning services on the basis of individual choice, and to formulate population policies in support of efforts towards sustainable development.

Press Coverage of the Meeting:

"Fistula Women" - BBC News Online

Contact Information:

William A. Ryan
Tel.: +66 2 288 2446

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