Nick Kristof has a great piece in the NY Times about a little known, but at the same time HUGE problem in the developing world. I’m speaking of obstetric fistulas.
Pregnancy often comes early for girls living in Africa or Asia’s impoverished communities. Sometimes as early as 12, 13 or 14 – occasionally even younger. If their bodies are not yet mature enough to handle vaginal delivery. They have no access to C-section. Due to the small size of the pelvis, an obstetric fistula sometimes occurs. Medically, it’s a minor problem, but it can destroy a young girls life.
It is estimated that about two million women around the world suffer from the affliction.
This is a childbirth injury, often suffered by a teenager in Africa or Asia whose pelvis is not fully grown. She suffers obstructed labor, has no access to a C-section, and endures internal injuries that leave her incontinent — steadily trickling urine and sometimes feces through her vagina.
I’ve met many of these women — or, often, girls of 13, 14, 15 — in half a dozen countries, for there are three million or four million of them around the world. They are the lepers of the 21st century.
Just about the happiest thing that can happen to such a woman is an encounter with Dr. Lewis Wall, an ob-gyn at Washington University in St. Louis. A quiet, self-effacing but relentless man of 59, Dr. Wall has devoted his life to helping these most voiceless of the voiceless, promoting the $300 surgeries that repair fistulas and typically return the patients to full health.
“There’s no more rewarding experience for a surgeon than a successful fistula repair,” Dr. Wall reflected. “There are a lot of operations you do that solve a problem — I can take out a uterus that has a tumor in it. But this is life-transforming for everybody who gets it done. It’s astonishing. You take a human being who has been in the abyss of despair and — boom! — you have a transformed woman. She has her life back.”
“In Liberia, I saw a woman who had developed a fistula 35 years earlier. It turned out to be a tiny injury; it took 20 minutes to repair it. For want of a 20-minute operation, this woman had lived in a pool of urine for 35 years.”
… The West African country of Niger recently approved Dr. Wall’s plan for a fistula hospital, affiliated with an existing leprosy hospital run by SIM, a Christian missionary organization. Eventually, when $850,000 in fund-raising is complete, a new 40-bed fistula hospital, modeled on the extremely successful Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital of Ethiopia, will rise on vacant ground next to the leprosy hospital. (For information on how to help, please visit my blog, nytimes.com/ontheground.)
I spent six months volunteering with an organization, Mercy Ships International, that runs a fistula surgical repair program. I know what a dramatic, life-changing experience these surguries are for the fortunate women who are able to find help. The surgury is relatively inexpensive, but for the poor of Africa or Asia, who lack medical care, it is out of reach without our help.