“I cared for a woman who had been suffering as an outcast for 25 years, since her first baby. It only took us 30 minutes to repair her fistula.”

Janet is a nurse anesthetist based in Boston, U.S.A. She first worked in Niger in the 1970s and has returned there many times, and now works regularly in Rwanda with the International Organization for Women and Development, an organization that provides fistula repair surgery to women suffering from this condition.

Is there a gender imbalance in access to surgical care?

When there are shortages in healthcare, women and babies are often the ones least advantaged.

It’s not at all unusual to find in the maternity section that the monitoring or anesthesia equipment is inferior to what’s used even for minor surgery in the same hospital. Childbirth is something that is considered just a natural process. But without a skilled birth attendant, and access to resources such as safe surgery if a c-section is required, it carries a high mortality with it. There is a vast global disparity in maternal and infant mortality statistics between well resourced and developing health systems.

What is an obstetric fistula, and how does it happen?

There are two types that we see. The first is obstructed labour – the woman is in labour for days without progress. The baby’s head pressing against her pelvic organs, so that no blood flow can get through, causing ischemic tissue damage.. The baby may die before the women receives help , and by the time it passes she has developed an ischemic hole, either between the vagina and the bladder or the vagina and the rectum.

Fluid freely flows out, of her vagina and she becomes incontinent.

The second type of fistula we see results from damage to pelvic organs after surgical interventions, Ceasarian Section. These injuries tend to be higher, involving the bladder and uterus or in the cervical region and often require open abdominal surgical repairs.

Can access to surgical services reduce the risk of fistula?

Absolutely. Fistula is a direct result of lack of available maternity and obstetric care, and the rate of C-section in some low-resource settings is very low, in others skilled health providers and other resources are not available for surgical and anesthesia care. when C-section is indicated.

Lack of personal and capital resources contribute to surgical care being performed under less than the safest circumstances. Some women do not have access to skilled services. Without an adequately trained birth attendant who recognizes the need for intervention and knows how to get a mother to it, complications are either not treated or treated too late so that complications , such as obstetric fistula result.

My own specialty, anesthesia, is not always available to care for the mother and infant. Anesthesia care goes beyond simply administering a spinal anesthetic. Monitoring the mother, so the earliest signs of serious complications are detected while they are correctable, is probably the most important anesthesia function. Anesthesia personnel also care for fragile infants. Anesthetists need to recognize their role in safe surgery goes beyond the technical. Current anesthetists should have the opportunity to participate in continuous education opportunities so they can be mentored in current principles of safe practice, interpretation of monitoring and appropriate interventions,.

Without the training and the resources it’s impossible to meet global targets for safer surgical care.

Does fistula ever occur in wealthier countries?

It does happen occasionally with urgent or repeat sections or can occur following pelvic radiation therapy.. At our hospital in Boston a woman suffered a fistula following a second urgent C-section – but we were able to repair her, with all that fancy equipment and skilled personnelwe have. She’s fine, the baby’s fine. Of course she wasn’t happy to have the complication, but that’s how treatable fistula is, how little suffering should go with it. Two weeks after her injury she was repaired and home caring for her healthy baby and toddler.

On the other hand I cared for a woman in Niger who had been suffering as an outcast for 25 years, since her first baby. It only took us 30 minutes to repair her fistula under spinal anesthesia

What can women around the world do about this?

I see quite a large number of female medical students these days – in Rwanda I have met many outstanding female medical students and I think this is likely to make a difference. Nurses and midwives also have an important role if they educate women about their bodies and normal birth and empower them to seek the appropriate care they deserve. Safe maternity care is a core component of the right to health.

It’s estimated that up to 500,000 women are suffering with the condition with 50,000 new cases at year. With our current resources we have the capability to treat barely 12,000 of these cases every year. The fact that fistula is a too common obstetric complication that occurs almost exclusively in the poorest countries, speaks to the global disparity in access to health care, including health personnel and other resources. Fistula is almost completely preventable and if it occurs it is treatable. The global capacity to eliminate this scourge exists,

And nobody should be suffering for any length of time.