Fast Facts & FAQ

Fast Facts

  • Fistula used to be prevalent in the U.S. and Europe, but was nearly eliminated in the latter part of the 19th century and early 20th century thanks to improved obstetric care in general and the use of C-sections in particular to relieve obstructed labor.
  • There is a large unmet need for treatment. We believe there are over one million women suffering from obstetric fistula worldwide. Fistula is most prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.
  • Fewer than 6 in 10 women in developing countries give birth with any trained professional, such as a midwife or a doctor. When complications arise, as they do in approximately 15% of all births, there is no one available to treat the woman, leading to disabling injuries like fistula, and even death.
  • The root causes of fistula are grinding poverty and the low status of women and girls. In developing countries, the poverty and malnutrition in children contributes to the condition of stunting, where the girl’s skeleton, and therefore pelvis as well, do not fully mature. This stunted condition can contribute to obstructed labor, and therefore fistula.
  • Obstetric fistula is both preventable and treatable. For instance, the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital has treated over 30,000 women since opening its doors in 1974. Their cure rate is over 90%. Fistula can be prevented if laboring women are provided with adequate emergency obstetric care when complications arise.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is a fistula?

A fistula is a hole. An obstetric fistula of the kind that occurs in many developing countries is a hole between a woman’s vagina and one or more of her internal organs. This hole develops over many days of obstructed labor, when the pressure of the baby’s head against the mother’s pelvis cuts off blood supply to delicate tissues in the region. The dead tissue falls away and the woman is left with a hole between her vagina and her bladder (called a vesicovaginal fistula or VVF) and sometimes between her vagina and rectum (rectovaginal fistula, RVF). This hole results in permanent incontinence of urine and/or feces. A majority of women who develop fistulas are abandoned by their husbands and ostracized by their communities because of their foul smell.

Traumatic fistula is the result of sexual violence. The injury can occur through rape or women being butchered from the inside with bayonets, wood or even rifles. The aim of sexual violence is to destroy the women and the community within which the sufferer lives. Once committed, the survivor, her husband, children and extended family become traumatized and humiliated. The Panzi Hospital in Congo is a pioneer in treating victims of traumatic fistula, and Fistula Foundation is proud to support their work. Learn more about their work here.

Can an obstetric fistula be “cured”?

Yes. An obstetric fistula can be closed with intravaginal surgery. If her surgery is performed by a skilled surgeon, a fistula patient has a good chance of returning to a normal life with full control of her bodily functions.

How much does it cost to treat obstetric fistula?

While $450 isn’t enough for one night’s stay in most hospitals in the United States, it is typically enough to provide one woman with restorative surgery and postoperative care.

The approximate average cost per patient is $450 US dollars. This includes surgery, postoperative care and physical rehabilitation. This price estimate is based on average costs reported to Fistula Foundation by our grantees across 25 countries in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. Costs and hospitalization can, however, be far greater for more complicated surgeries such as treating dual vaginal and rectal fistulas. 

What are the causes of obstetric fistula?

A fistula results from an obstructed labor that is left unrelieved and untreated. It is estimated that 5% of all pregnant women worldwide will experience obstructed labor. In the United States and other affluent countries, emergency obstetric care is readily available. In many developing countries where there are few hospitals, few doctors, and poor transportation systems, obstructed labor often results in death of the mother. When she survives, there is a great likelihood her child will die and she will develop a fistula. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), there are three delays that contribute to the development of a fistula: delay in seeking medical attention; delay in reaching a medical facility; and delay in receiving medical care once arriving at a health care facility.

I heard that fistulas are a result of female genital cutting. Is this true?

While harmful traditional practices such as female genital cutting (FGC) are rightly of concern to the international medical community, they are not major contributors to the development of an obstetric fistula. Some patients have been victims of FGC, but their fistulas are almost always caused by an obstructed labor resulting from a too-small pelvis or a malpresentation of the baby. FGC does not “cause” a fistula.

FGC can, however, make treatment of an obstetric fistula more complicated, because the scar tissue resulting from FGC can make fistula repair surgery more difficult.

How many women does this problem affect?

A recently published analysis from a team at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine estimates there are over one million women suffering with obstetric fistula. Because most fistula sufferers are young women—many still in their early twenties or even late teens — they are likely to live with their condition for upwards of 25 years. The world capacity to treat fistula is currently estimated at 16,000 fistula repair surgeries per year.

Where is fistula prevalent?

There is a high incidence of fistula in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Southeast Asia, but women are susceptible to developing fistulas wherever there are insufficient emergency obstetric care systems.

Can obstetric fistula be prevented?

Any woman who can gain access to timely and competent emergency obstetric care when labor is obstructed, by obtaining a Cesarean section, will not develop a fistula.

What can I do to help?

donation to Fistula Foundation directly assists in restoring health and dignity to women suffering from obstetric fistula. Donations to Fistula Foundation are tax deductible within the United States.

Fistula Foundation is also expanding its Circle of Friends, a program which assists groups and individuals who want to hold their own fundraisers to support the Foundation’s work to help women with fistulas in developing countries. If you have questions about this or any of our programs, feel free to email us at info@fistulafoundation.org.


For answers to frequently asked questions about making a charitable contribution to help fight fistula, visit our FAQ About Giving page.

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