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Over 30,000 Women In Ethiopia Are Living With Obstetric Fistula

It is estimated that there are up to 31,000* historic cases of obstetric fistula among Ethiopian women of child-bearing age, and around 1,000 women suffer new birth injuries each year.

On International Day to End Obstetric Fistula (May 23), Hamlin Fistula New Zealand renews its commitment to reducing these numbers to zero.

In order to accelerate progress on ending fistula and other birth injuries, Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia launched Project Zero, an ambitious new initiative in 2023.

The first pilot of Project Zero, which aims to find every woman in Ethiopia living with fistula and refer them for care and treatment, recently ended with significant success.

In Ale Woreda Hamlin-trained teams carried out over 14,500 household surveys, identifying 60 women living with historical birth injuries, including both obstetric fistula and advanced stage pelvic organ prolapse. All women received treatment at a Hamlin fistula hospital.

Chairwoman Joli Wescombe said: “The United Nations General Assembly goal to end obstetric fistula by 2030 is fundamentally an issue of human rights. These childbirth injuries are entirely preventable and result from harmful gender norms and practices, discrimination and poverty.”

“Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia has 65 years of expertise in treating women with fistula injuries. We are uniquely situated to achieve this goal. But time is running out; we now have only 5 years to meet this target. In Ethiopia, tens of thousands of women are living in pain and isolation, unaware that a cure is available. Through Project Zero, we are determined to find them.”

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Phase II of Project Zero is now underway in Didessa Woreda with two more woredas commencing in the next few months. In addition to patient identification, Project Zero also helps to strengthen maternal healthcare services in rural areas and increase community awareness of childbirth injuries.

Project Zero teams provide longer-term support and mentoring in each woreda over a 3-year period to ensure the program is embedded locally. Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia is also investing in health clinics and working in partnership with government agencies, at both a national and local level.

Mrs Wescombe said: “We believe that midwives are the key to eradicating fistula. A well-trained and well-equipped midwife can transform maternal health in impoverished communities, through increased community awareness and improved access to midwifery care. Change can be sustained across each woreda, and it can remain fistula free.

“The real answer to change is prevention. The Hamlin College of Midwives is training a new generation of highly skilled frontline healthcare workers who can prevent obstetric fistula injuries from occurring in the first place.

“Our focus is on realising Drs Reg and Catherine Hamlin’s vision of a fistula-free and safe childbirth for every woman in Ethiopia. No woman has to suffer the trauma of preventable childbirth injuries. We know this is an ambitious goal, but we also believe it is achievable.”

Learn more about Project Zero’s 3-part approach to ending fistula

About Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia

Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia is a registered charitable organisation dedicated to the treatment and prevention of obstetric fistula. It was founded over 65 years ago by Drs Reg and Catherine Hamlin. Reg was born in New Zealand and dedicated his life to helping Ethiopian women suffering from an obstetric fistula. Between them, Drs Reg and Catherine Hamlin and the clinical team at Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia have transformed the lives of more than 70,000 Ethiopian women.

About Hamlin Fistula New Zealand

Established in 2005 at the request of Dr Catherine, Hamlin Charitable Fistula Hospitals Trust (known as Hamlin Fistula New Zealand) is a Kiwi charity committed to raising funds and awareness for Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia, which comprises of Hamlin’s Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital, five Hamlin regional fistula hospitals, the Hamlin College of Midwives, more than 90 Hamlin-supported midwifery clinics and Hamlin’s Rehabilitation and Reintegration Centre (Desta Mender).

What is an Obstetric Fistula?

An obstetric fistula is an injury caused by a prolonged and obstructed labour - common when childhood malnutrition leads to smaller bone structures and access to maternal healthcare is limited. During birth, an internal hole is created between the birth canal and the bladder or rectum. It leaves survivors leaking urine or faeces, sometimes both. In 90% of cases, the child is delivered stillborn. Suffering incredible loss, then humiliated and ostracised by their communities for their incontinence, these women are left to survive alone.

For more information, please visit: https://hamlinfistula.org.nz/what-we-do/what-is-obstetric-fistula/

*Measuring the spatial heterogeneity on the reduction of vaginal fistula burden in Ethiopia between 2005 and 2016: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31969662/

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