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US, British Doctors Volunteer to Eradicate Fistula in Nigeria

Doctors from the United States and Britain have joined forces to surgically repair more than 500 Nigerian women living with a devastating pregnancy-related injury known as fistula. The U.N.-coordinated project is part of global campaign to eradicate the disorder.

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) says fistula has been stamped-out in western countries because of the availability of cesarean sections. But, the disorder remains one of the most severe childbirth injuries in Asia and Africa, with as many as 100,000 new cases each year. The UNFPA says a campaign to address the issue is under way in 30 countries, including Senegal, Uganda, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, and Nepal.

Sarah Craven, the head of UNFPA in Washington, says fistula's impact is both physically and psychologically damaging.

"Obstetric fistula is a preventable childbirth injury that occurs when a woman endures prolonged, obstructed labor without medical intervention. Often the baby dies, and the woman is left with chronic incontinence," she explained.

Fistula victims can also suffer nerve damage and infertility, and are often abandoned by their husbands and socially ostracized.

Dr. William Meyer, an American doctor who volunteered with the Nigerian project, says fistula is almost completely curable and preventable.

"When you get a chance to operate on these patients, its not an exaggeration to say you are giving them their life back," he noted. "90 percent of these patients are cured in the first attempt to close their fistula."

Dr. Meyer says surgery to repair a fistula takes just several hours and costs less than $300.

Dr. France Donnay, the chief of UNFPA's reproductive health branch, says the fistula campaign is aimed at both helping those afflicted with the disorder as well as improving health care for pregnant women in developing countries.

"Prevention is key. It is medical prevention but also social prevention. Because fistula is a disease of poverty. We need really to work with governments on poverty reduction strategies and on allocating resources to education and health systems, and help the poorest members of communities have access to health and prevention," she added.

Dr. Donnay says there are plans to replicate the two-week long Nigerian project in other countries, and she stresses that cooperation from state and local governments is essential to the campaign's success.