Medical personnel in French-speaking Central African countries say obstetric fistula haunts 40 percent of women. It is a severe condition where women cannot control urine flow due to physical tears caused by early marriages and births. Many women are abandoned and ostracized but doctors are helping some of the women with free surgeries.
Eyenga Catherine weeps in pain while being treated for uncontrolled urine flow at the university teaching hospital in Yaounde. The 19-year-old tells VOA her trouble started two years ago when she was pregnant.
She says her doctor committed a diagnostic error and inflicted wounds oh her while operating on her for what he said were early signs of cancer of the uterus.
40 percent of African girls at risk
Doctors confer before they begin surgery, Yaounde, Cameroon, June, 2014. (Moki Edwin Kindzeka/VOA)
Doctor Pierre Marie Tebeu, an expert in obstetric fistula says Catherine is one of the 40 percent of African girls who are given out in marriage at tender ages when their bodies are too physically immature to give birth.
He says all women who deliver are exposed to obstetric fistula even though it is first of all a major problem in adolescents who deliver when they are very young, less than 20 years of age.
Dr. Tebeu adds that many of the patients die because there are very few qualified medical staff in Africa to handle fistula cases.
He says not any doctor can operate on obstetric fistula victims just because he is a gynaecologist or urologist. He explains that 75 percent of patients he receives have been unsuccessfully operated on by unqualified doctors.
Stigma associated to condition
Dr. Tebeu prepares his instruments for the operation, Yaounde, Cameroon, June, 2014. (Moki Edwin Kindzeka/VOA)
Nurse Abachong Esther says fistula causes a huge stigma around the condition and patients are accused of witchcraft practices and abandoned by their relatives.
She says many women go into hiding when they have the disease because they believe it is a curse and she adds there are even some medical workers who tell patients that there are no doctors in Cameroon who can help and as such they should go and wait for death at home.
A group of 300 women who have been successfully operated on for fistula have created an association to encourage patients to come out from the cloud of stigma and be treated.
Its leader, Oteng Julienne, tells VOA why the association was created.
She says the goal of the association is to tell patients to come out of from hiding because we also suffered from the same disease and were cured. She says If we in the association had gone into hiding, we may have died. As victims, we go out and tell sufferers that we too were victims and have been treated so there is hope for them she says.
Medical workers say most if not all deaths as a result of fistula are preventable if quality health care is provided and child marriages stopped. Those afflicted by it often smell, and are sequestered away from their communities and families to suffer in silence.