Hope for women in Malawi

 by Zach Read

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One of Dr. Wilkinson’s patients. Photo by Kathryn Stein.

Jeff Wilkinson, MD, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at UNC, likens victims of obstetric fistula to modern-day versions of Job: they have lost their homes, their families, and their health. Funded by the Freedom From Fistula Foundation, with additional support from UNC Project-Malawi and the Institute for Global Health & Infectious Diseases, Wilkinson is surgically repairing fistulas and saving Malawian women from the devastating condition.

By the early twentieth century, obstetric fistula was essentially eliminated in the United States. The last fistula hospital in the country closed its doors in 1895. Built in its place is one of New York City’s most famous luxury hotels, the Waldorf Astoria.

More than a decade into the twenty-first century, fistula persists in many poor nations. According to the World Health Organization, more than 2 million women worldwide suffer from the devastating effects of fistula. In the sub-Saharan African country of Malawi, it is estimated that fistula may occur in 2 percent of deliveries. It is also where UNC associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology Jeff Wilkinson works in collaboration with the Freedom From Fistula Foundation (FFFF) to surgically repair fistulas at one of the country’s busiest maternity hospitals.

“In the United States, you may see small fistulas that result from injury during a hysterectomy or occasionally from radiation or infection, but fistula from obstructed labor comes along maybe once in a career,” says Dr. Wilkinson. “They virtually never happen.”

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