Meryl Streep: Actress helped shed light on ‘victims’ of ‘life-threatening’ fistula’s

The Prom: Meryl Streep and James Corden star in Netflix trailer

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The 72-year-old actress shot to fame after her film debut in Julia in 1977. From there she received her first Oscar nomination for The Deer Hunter, but it was not until 1979 when she won her first Academy Award. Having enjoyed a successful career spanning over four decades, in 2015 Streep teamed up with filmmakers to narrate a film which focused on women in Sierra Leone and Malawi, who suffer from obstetric fistula – a hole or abnormal opening in the birth canal that results in chronic leakage of urine or faeces.

“This powerful film attests to the igniting power of one woman, Ann Gloag, to set in motion hundreds of helping hands, doctors, nurses, caregivers, family and friends, to resuscitate the health and status of victims of fistula, and to give them back their lives,” Streep said at the time.

The filmmakers noted that an estimated two million women in Africa live with obstetric fistula, and more than 500,000 women die each year during pregnancy or childbirth, though 80 percent of these deaths are completely avoidable.

Speaking in the film, Streep is heard saying: “These women are in dire need of medical care, facing an insurmountable number of life-threatening conditions from malnutrition to drug abuse and polluted water.”

Doctor Jeff Wilkinson, a senior surgeon at the Malawi Freedom from Fistula Foundation explained more about the serious condition whilst featuring in the film.

He said: “What happens if a woman doesn’t get to a C-section then she expels a dead baby. If the mother doesn’t bleed to death a few days later from infection then she is left with a hole.

“So instead of being able to hold your urine when you want to, it just pours out.”

The condition first develops due to an obstructed labour, when the baby’s head is constantly pushing against the individual’s pelvic bone, which prevents blood flow and causes tissue to die.

The reason why it is so prevalent in some parts of the world is because they are unable to provide accessible, quality maternal care.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) explains that the condition is largely preventable by:

  • Delaying the age of first pregnancy
  • The cessation of harmful traditional practices
  • Timely access to obstetric care.

Doctor Jeff added: “In 80 percent of our patients we know exactly what to do. There is no mystery to it.

“All you need is some decent anaesthesia, a table that tilts back, some scissors and a couple of other instruments for the procedure and you can cure that patient.”

Scottish nurse and founder of Freedom From Fistula Foundation Ann Gloag, also spoke in the film, revealing more about the devastating impact fistula can have on these women’s lives.

https://www.youtube.com/embed/dhkqggW4UOA

She added: “We have women who have had a fistula for 40 years. I mean that is tragic. Their whole life has just been a misery.”

The Mayo Clinic explains that as well as dealing with significant problems with continence and hygiene, other symptoms of a fistula include:

  • Passage of gas, stool or pus from your vagina
  • Foul-smelling vaginal discharge
  • Recurrent vaginal or urinary tract infections
  • Irritation or pain in the vulva, vagina and the area between your vagina and anus (perineum)
  • Pain during sexual intercourse.

The condition may cause emotional distress and physical discomfort, which can impact self-esteem and intimacy.

If able to seek medical attention, doctors will be able to conduct multiple tests and provide effective treatment.

Treatment can depend on the cause, size, location and effect of the fistula on surrounding tissue, but in most cases surgery is used to close or repair the area.

Surgical options include:

  • Sewing an anal fistula plug or patch of biologic tissue into the fistula to allow your tissue to grow into the patch and heal the fistula.
  • Using a tissue graft taken from a nearby part of your body or folding a flap of healthy tissue over the fistula opening.
  • Repairing the anal sphincter muscles if they’ve been damaged by the fistula or by scarring or tissue damage from radiation or Crohn’s disease.
  • Performing a colostomy before repairing a fistula in complex or recurrent cases to divert stool through an opening in your abdomen instead of through your rectum.

As well as surgery, The Mayo Clinic explains that patients are advised to ensure good hygiene to help ease discomfort while they recover.

These hygiene measures include avoiding irritants, drying thoroughly, applying creams or powder to act as a moisture-barrier, wearing loose clothing and washing with water only.

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