Fortnight of fistula correction kicked off in Nigeria, UN Population Fund says

22 February 2005

Forty-six women have undergone surgery in northern Nigeria to correct fistula, an obstetric injury that leads to incontinence and stigmatization, kicking off a two-week campaign sponsored in part by the United Nations population agency to treat hundreds of women and train more doctors and nurses.

The injury to the mother’s birth canal was not only severely traumatic for her, but was usually fatal for the baby, leading to high mortality in Africa from a condition that was wiped out 100 years ago in Europe and the United Sates, the chief of Media Services for the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), Kristen Hetle, told a press briefing today at UN Headquarters in New York.

“There’s no nice way to talk about it,” she said. “They (the mothers) leak urine or faeces, or both,” and that results in their being ostracized by their families and the rest of society.

“Fistula is unpleasant to talk about, but easy to cure,” she added.

The condition was usually brought on by early marriages and pregnancies, when the birth canal is immature, as well as by malnutrition, and an estimate of 800,000 sufferers in Nigeria might be low, Ms. Hetle said.

Among the important doctors in the campaign are Dutch surgeon Kees Waaldijk, who has operated on 33,000 women in his 20 years in Nigeria and established seven fistula centres in Nigeria and three in Niger. Nigerian surgeon Said Ahmad has been doing corrective fistula surgery in northern Kano State for 12 years.

UNFPA launched its campaign to end fistula in 30 countries in Africa, the Arab states and South Asia year before last.

Besides UNFPA, campaign sponsors for the Nigerian effort are the Federal and State Government agencies, the Nigerian Red Cross, the Virgin Group’s key charity arm, Virgin Unite, created “to help out with some of the tougher challenges facing the world today, local and international,” the United Kingdom’s Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) and local non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Surgeon James Marion Sims of the United States performed the first successful fistula surgery in the world in 1849 and established the first fistula hospital in 1857 in Manhattan’s East Side, according to UNFPA. He is seen as the founder of gynaecology.

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Video of press briefing [10mins]