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Open Access Commentary

Overcoming phase 1 delays: the critical component of obstetric fistula prevention programs in resource-poor countries

L Lewis Wall

Author Affiliations

Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology, School of Medicine, Washington University in St. Louis, Campus Box 8064, 660 South Euclid Avenue, St. Louis, MO, 63110, USA

Department of Anthropology, College of Arts and Sciences, Washington University in St. Louis, Campus Box 1114, One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO, 63130, USA

BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth 2012, 12:68  doi:10.1186/1471-2393-12-68

Published: 18 July 2012

Abstract

Background

An obstetric fistula is a traumatic childbirth injury that occurs when labor is obstructed and delivery is delayed. Prolonged obstructed labor leads to the destruction of the tissues that normally separate the bladder from the vagina and creates a passageway (fistula) through which urine leaks continuously. Women with a fistula become social outcasts. Universal high-quality maternity care has eliminated the obstetric fistula in wealthy countries, but millions of women in resource-poor nations still experience prolonged labor and tens of thousands of new fistula sufferers are added to the millions of pre-existing cases each year. This article discusses fistula prevention in developing countries, focusing on the factors which delay treatment of prolonged labor.

Discussion

Obstetric fistulas can be prevented through contraception, avoiding obstructed labor, or improving outcomes for women who develop obstructed labor. Contraception is of little use to women who are already pregnant and there is no reliable screening test to predict obstruction in advance of labor. Improving the outcome of obstructed labor depends on prompt diagnosis and timely intervention (usually by cesarean section). Because obstetric fistulas are caused by tissue compression, the time interval from obstruction to delivery is critical. This time interval is often extended by delays in deciding to seek care, delays in arriving at a hospital, and delays in accessing treatment after arrival. Communities can reasonably demand that governments and healthcare institutions improve the second (transportation) and third (treatment) phases of delay. Initial delays in seeking hospital care are caused by failure to recognize that labor is prolonged, confusion concerning what should be done (often the result of competing therapeutic pathways), lack of women’s agency, unfamiliarity with and fear of hospitals and the treatments they offer (especially surgery), and economic constraints on access to care.

Summary

Women in resource-poor countries will use institutional obstetric care when the services provided are valued more than the competing choices offered by a pluralistic medical system. The key to obstetric fistula prevention is competent obstetrical care delivered respectfully, promptly, and at affordable cost. The utilization of these services is driven largely by trust.

Keywords:
Obstetric fistula prevention; Vesicovaginal fistula; Obstructed labor; Phases of delay; Trust