Safaricom Foundation has partnered with the Freedom From Fistula Foundation and Flying Doctors to restore health to afflicted women

Prisca Ariri had given birth three times to healthy babies with ease. She expected that her fourth delivery would also be easy but that was not to be as she suffered a double tragedy. She lost her baby after a difficult labour. But that was not the end of her woes. She was left with an abnormal opening and which left her unable to hold her urine.

The condition, known as obstetric fistula, occurs when prolonged obstructed labour ruptures the wall between the bladder and the birth canal, creating a hole that causes incontinence. For more than three decades, Prisca had borne the burden of the condition that carries with it a foul smell, shame, social isolation, and piling medical bills.

“The condition is invisible because it distastefully involves sex, odor and private body parts, and because victims tend to live in impoverished countries and already have three strikes against them: They’re poor, rural and female, and thus voiceless and marginalised,” writes Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times columnist.

With over two million women in need of fistula surgery worldwide, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared fistula “the single most dramatic aftermath of neglected childbirth”. Fortunately, fistula can mostly be repaired with a single life-changing surgery.

According to the Flying Doctors Society of Africa, about 4,000 to 5,000 new obstetric fistulas occur in East Africa annually and estimate that 1,200 fistula operations are carried out in Kenya every year. They have financed more than 1,500 fistula operations since 2006.

“I'm so happy I feel like running up and down and jumping about. I'm happy and I'm free” PRISCA

Here in Kenya, the Safaricom Foundation has partnered with Freedom From Fistula Foundation and Flying Doctors to restore health and dignity to women afflicted by fistula.

“It is unfortunate for a mother to not only lose her dignity to fistula, but also the ability to have children in future. High cost of treatment as well as the stigma that comes with the disease leads many women to choose to suffer in silence – making the situation worse. The good news is that fistula can be treated,” said Safaricom Foundation Chairman Joe Ogutu during one of the free camps organised by the Foundation in Kisii County recently.

“We believe in partnering with specialists to find lasting solutions to our people’s problems. It is all about transforming the lives of Kenyans,” said Mr Ogutu.

One such transformation is evident in the life of Prisca who is now 80 years old. She says life before the surgery was unbearable. “People would run away from me. I would take a seat and people around me would instinctively move away,” she said.

One of her sons took care of her needs but his life was cut short by the 2007 post-election violence. It wasn’t until late 2016 when she heard of the Safaricom Foundation camp in Kisii that she finally got the help that gave her a new lease of life.

Her movements were limited but after the surgery life took a turn for the better. She can now do her household chores and gardening unassisted, says a relative Dinta Kemunto.

On the lush green grass in her compound, Prisca jogged to show just how much better she felt. “I’m so happy. I feel like running up and down and jumping about. I’m happy and I’m free,” she said. Lucy Atieno Wanyiera, 22, from Butere, Kakamega County, developed fistula in 2013 after child birth. The mother of two never sought treatment for her condition and suffered shame and indignation for almost three years. Like Prisca, her life changed for the better after Safaricom Foundation held a free medical camp in her home area.

Other than the surgeries, 20 health workers from Homa Bay and Kisii counties were trained on screening and treatment of fistula patients.

Fistulas can be avoided especially if at-risk mothers get required medical attention. However, the condition largely affects the poor living in resource-starved areas where access to maternity hospitals and information is limited.

According to the Ministry of Health, less than half of the women giving birth in Kenya have the support of a skilled health worker. This has led to high rates of child mortality and maternal deaths, as well as complications.

Despite the prevalence of the problem, there are only eight hospitals in the country that offer fistula repair services. These are Kenyatta National Hospital, Kisii Level 5 Hospital, Garissa Level 5 Hospital, Meru Level 5 Hospital, Coast Level 5 Hospital, Machakos Level 5 Hospital, Embu Level 5 Hospital and Kilifi County Hospital. Flying Doctors Society of Africa (FDSA) has trained six rural-based specialists and gynaecologists in fistula surgery.

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