What is Fistula?

What is Fistula?

Obstetric fistula is a devastating pregnancy-related disability that primarily affects young women from poor backgrounds. Fistula is usually the result of obstructed labour which means the baby does not exit the pelvis during childbirth due to being physically blocked. However, fistula is a preventable and mostly treatable condition.

Obstructed labour combined with a lack of skilled medical care and unaffordable caesarean sections, obstetric fistula most often leads to permanent incontinence – a continuous leakage of urine and loss of control over bowel movements.

A vaginal fistula, which usually affects pregnant women, results from prolonged labour, usually lasting two to five days, with delivery happening only after the baby dies.

During labour, the baby’s head and the woman’s pubic bone form a vice, cutting off blood flow to the tissue trapped in this area. Following delivery, the dead tissue sloughs away, leaving an abnormal opening between the birth canal and the bladder (less frequently the rectum).

Unable to control the flow of urine (and/or faeces), the woman is perpetually wet and soiled. Affected women are often abandoned by their husbands and ostracised by their families and communities.

  • Onboard our ship, the Africa Mercy, Mercy Ships performs free fistula repair operations for affected women. The healed patients are given new dresses and headdresses as symbols of their restored life.
  • Mercy Ships aims to reduce the effects of fistula in women in Africa by providing specialised medical treatment and training.
  • In addition to performing free fistula repair operations for affected women, Mercy Ships provides training and prevention to help build the capacity of healthcare systems in developing nations to address the condition of fistula. Mercy Ships networks with and provides training for local and international healthcare professionals including surgeons, nurses and traditional birth attendants.
  • The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that every year between 50,000 and 100,000 women sustain an obstetric fistula during childbirth.
  • The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that more than two million women are currently living with obstetric fistulas, a large number of which are in Africa.
  • Obstetric fistula is both preventable and treatable, a condition that no woman should have to endure. Poverty is the number one indirect cause of obstetric fistula around the world.
  • Obstructed labour and obstetric fistula account for 8% of maternal deaths worldwide. Through fistula programmes that bring hope and healing, Mercy Ships aims to reduce the effects of fistula in women in Africa by providing specialized medical treatment and training.
  • Mercy Ships uses its hospital ship and also partners with land-based programmes to deliver transformational healthcare to the forgotten poor.
  • The Dress Ceremony restores dignity beyond surgery. Women afflicted by obstetric fistula are often outcasts from their own homes, their relationships lost, their clothes soiled. We send them back with a celebration and a new dress, symbolizing their newfound wholeness and a brighter outlook to the future.
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