The U.N. Fund for Population Activity says more than 600,000 African women already suffer from obstetric fistula with as many as 30,000 new cases each year.
Poverty is the biggest factor. Access to a Caesarean section to relieve the pressure of obstructed labor is the most common way of preventing an unborn child from pressing so tightly in the birth canal that it cuts off blood flow to surrounding tissue.
Once common in Europe and the United States, cases of obstetric fistula now occur almost entirely in the developing world where poor nutrition and girls giving birth before their pelvis is fully developed contribute to the risks.
At the Africa Regional Conference on Fistula and Maternal Health, more than 150 people from 40 countries and partner organizations met in Mauritania to better integrate fistula care into existing national health care systems. They discussed involving more fistula survivors in civil society groups working on the issue and better coordinating the work of those groups into regional networks.
Women unable to control their bladder and bowel movements are often abandoned or neglected by husbands and family. Many end up relying on charity.
Reconstructive surgery can mend most of the injuries. The procedure plus two weeks of post-operative care and counseling to help address emotional issues and help women reintegrate into society can all be done for as little as $300.
Yahya Kane is a program specialist with the U.N. Fund for Population Activity. He says in most areas where fistula is common, the capacity for treatment cannot meet demand.
Kane says $30 million in new funding announced at the conference in Mauritania will help national fistula programs across Africa. He says the existence of fistulas means the health system has failed somewhere. Kane says it is a human rights issue that is not sufficiently respected - rights that are not just for the privileged but are universal.
Kane says promoting women's rights and their access to quality health care across Africa will lead naturally to a stable political environment, economic prosperity, foreign investment, and sustainable development.
The U.N. Fund for Population Activity and the World Health Organization are working with national ministries of health in a global campaign to end fistula that now covers more than 40 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.
The campaign aims to expand available treatment and reduce the social stigma associated with fistula, while improving obstetric care and training health providers.