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Women's Health

Grappling to Give Uganda’s Fistula Patients Dignity

In Uganda, two percent of women of a reproductive age have experienced fistula, according to the Uganda Demographic Health Survey 2011. Credit: Amy Fallon/IPS

, Nov 19 2013 (IPS) - Ever since giving birth to a stillborn baby 15 years ago, Mary*, a peasant farmer from Mubende District in central Uganda, has continuously leaked urine.

“I am home all the time. I don’t go out to the market, I don’t go to church,” says the 35-year-old, speaking through a translator in a crowded ward at the Mulago National Referral Hospital in the country’s capital, Kampala.

Every time Mary drinks something, her bladder empties out the contents and she is forced to constantly pat herself dry with old clothes.

Mary has obstetric fistula. Defined as a hole between the vagina and the bladder, or between the vagina and rectum of a woman that results in the constant leakage of urine and/or faeces through the vagina. The medical condition is predominantly caused by prolonged or obstructed labour lasting more than 24 hours.

Mary’s labour lasted three days. As the nearest hospital was too far away, Mubende District is some 144 km west of Kampala, a traditional birth attendant took Mary to a small health facility when she went into labour. For 48 hours she remained there, trying to give birth to her child. On the third day she was taken to a district hospital where she was able to deliver her stillborn baby.

Abandoned by the father of her child, Mary was later ostracised by her own family.

“Even my sisters who I was living with shunned me. I am stigmatised because I smell all the time,” she tells IPS.

Mary’s story is “typical”, Dr. Susan Obore, an obstetrician who specialises in urogynaecology at the Mulago National Referral Hospital, tells IPS.

In Uganda, two percent of women of a reproductive age have experienced fistula, according to the Uganda Demographic Health Survey 2011. This means there are an estimated 140,000 to 200,000 women with fistula in the country, the Ugandan Ministry of Health (MoH) said in June.

“The true figures are not known because [women] do not come out, they are so stigmatised,” says Obore. “So what we see is probably the tip of the iceberg.”

Uganda grapples with an incredibly low number of surgeons who have the required training to carry out fistula repairs. Currently there are only 24 in this East African nation.

“Twenty-four in a population of about 34 to 37 million. It’s like a drop in the ocean,” national fistula specialist and specialist in the MoH, Peter Mukasa, tells IPS.

“Every hospital should be able to repair a woman with fistula.”

Mukasa says the country has 1,900 new cases a year and can operate on 2,000 women annually. But according to the MoH, the large backlog of fistula cases, coupled with the increasing number of new cases, has “surpassed the existing capacity of our health facilities to repair the cases.”

“We are in a static position; the backlog remains. It will take us so many years to eliminate this,” Mukasa says.

“As we speak now there’s a fistula being formed, one or two or three or four hundred women are getting obstructed (in labour).”

He says fistula repair costs on average about 400 dollars, including the cost of transport to hospital, hospitalisation and other care.

“It is a lot of money,” he concedes, adding that in Uganda the expense is mainly catered for by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

Ethiopia, where according to the World Health Organisation at least 8,000 women develop new fistulas every year, is home to the world’s first dedicated fistula hospital, the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital. But Obore insists a similar facility is not needed in Uganda.

“We are hoping to kick out fistula, so there’s no reason why we should have a dedicated hospital,” she says.

“Empowerment of women is one of the best ways to prevent fistula,” Obore adds.

Those most vulnerable to contracting fistula are young, illiterate and rural dwellers.

Worldwide, there are over two million women in Africa, Asia and the Arab region living with untreated obstetric fistula, according to the global Campaign to End Fistula, a programme by UNFPA and various partners.

Between 50,000 and 100,000 new cases of fistula, treatable through reconstructive surgery, occur globally each year, according to UNFPA.

International NGO Uganda Village Project (UVP) run fistula repair camps three times a year at Kamuli Mission Hospital, in Kamuli, eastern Uganda. Patients are identified through radio shows, village outreach programmes, health centre referrals and by word of mouth. They are transported to hospital and operated on by surgeons from the Uganda Childbirth Injuries Fund, a United Kingdom-based organisation.

The last camp was held in early September and 15 patients had surgery. For nine of them, the surgery was successful. The remaining four women still require a second operation, which will take place during the next camp that begins on Jan. 18, says the managing director of UVP’s Iganga office, Kait Maloney.

Mary was not aware she could be operated on until she heard a radio announcement. The first surgery she had at a rural hospital was unsuccessful. She was referred to the Mulago National Referral Hospital, where she will be operated on in the coming months.

“I’m happy to have the surgery. I have no problem going for it,” she says.

But Mary says that even after she has the surgery she will still think about her fistula. She acknowledges that it is unlikely she will have another baby because of her ordeal.

*Name withheld to protect patient’s identity.

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  • Marie

    So sad that in this day and age , any female, has to live and endure this terrible affliction.

  • mbabani

    No woman should die from any maternal related complications,
    Marry spending 48 hours in labor, it was beyond human, neither no animal wound endure
    such pain. This country need to review
    the Health center system and investing in health apparently the entire ministry of
    health is running on 7.6% of the national budget, don’t ask me how much the defense
    ministry spend , how much Mps make in salary including useless international
    trips, this is so sad! Bravo

  • activist09

    Worldwide, more than two million women
    suffer from a childbirth injury caused by lack of nutrition and early
    marriage. In Ethiopia, some 100,000 girls and women suffer from
    obstetric fistula and there are 9,000 new cases each year. An obstetric
    fistula is an opening between the bladder and/or rectum and the vagina,
    which can occur during childbirth. The contractions, which often last
    for days, constantly press the baby’s head against its mother’s pelvis,
    causing damage. Through the hole that results, the woman continuously
    leaks urine or feces. Age-old traditions force girls to marry at a very
    young age. They become pregnant so young that they cannot properly bear
    their baby because their pelvis isn’t yet fully grown. The baby dies and
    the young mother is left with a fistula. These girls and women are
    often banished from their families and communities. Since 1974,
    operations have taken place at the Fistula Hospital in Addis Ababa. The
    hospital was founded by an Australian couple, Catherine Hamlin and her
    husband. This documentary tells the story of a young Ethiopian woman,
    Yezina, victim of having a fistula. Her husband did not abandon her but
    he sells his ox to cure her.

    www (dot) cultureunplugged (dot) com/documentary/watch-online/play/11527

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