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Women in Africa suffering owing to lack of medical expertise

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Picture: REUTERS Women sit on a fishing boat in the Akpakpa neighbourhood of Benin’s capital Cotonou. Although fibroids affect women across every racial and ethnic group, research has found that fibroids are most common in African women, says the writer.

By Alison Zuva

As we celebrate the bravery of women this month, we also need to reflect on the health issues women in Africa are facing and devise ways on how best to tackle them. A growing number of women on the continent are struggling with uterine fibroids. These are noncancerous growths found either in or on the uterus.

The majority of women are asymptomatic. However, 20 percent to 50 percent of African women with fibroids experience heavy menstruation, which can result in anaemia, pain during sex, bladder issues, and pregnancy difficulties. This has affected the quality of life of most African women. Although fibroids affect women across every racial and ethnic group, research has found that fibroids are most common in African women.

In African societies, it is taboo to discuss female reproductive health issues. This is a challenge, as women find it difficult to access proper medical care. Breaking the taboo will provide a platform for open dialogue and an opportunity for women to share their medical struggles. This is important, as shared experiences will break the yoke of silence and improve access to knowledge and medical treatment.

Cultural barriers play a significant role in hindering education regarding fibroids. African societies carry with them a number of cultural taboos and beliefs. Fibroids are usually associated with the spiritual aspects of life. It is believed that a woman with fibroids is under a spiritual attack or is suffering because of a generational curse. This makes it difficult and less probable for women to seek medical attention.

When a woman fails to seek medical help, the situation and the condition worsens, as uterine fibroids continue to grow, which affects the uterus. This will probably lead to continual loss of blood, failure to fall pregnant, and the removal of the uterus, which will be devastating to the woman. The other problem that cuts across the African continent when it comes to women’s health is the lack of proper health-care infrastructure.

African health systems are undeveloped, with rural areas the worst affected. Poor healthcare systems that lack the proper scientific equipment to detect fibroids at an early stage pose many challenges for the African woman as there will be late detection of uterine fibroids. There is also a shortage of qualified gynaecologists in Africa. This is due to the devastating economic situations in most African countries that have caused the majority of medical professionals to leave the continent in search of greener pastures in the European world. Women in Africa continue to suffer when there are insufficient practitioners to deal with fibroids.

Women who come from low-income families find it difficult to seek medical treatment for fibroids. The cost of consulting a gynaecologist, scans, and the operation to remove the fibroids is exorbitant in Africa, and few women can afford treatment. In the spirit of celebrating women, I believe it is time the subject of fibroids affecting African women be discussed openly without attaching cultural taboos and stigmatising a health issue that needs to be urgently addressed. Rigorous fibroid awareness among African communities needs to be done effectively – the sooner, the better.

This will encourage more women with uterine fibroids to speak openly about the challenges they experience. Destigmatising this issue can be successful only by engaging everyone in the communities through outreaches, awareness campaigns, and health workers taking a lead role in educating people about uterine fibroids.

A holistic approach to tackling fibroids in Africa is urgently needed, one in which every stakeholder – including governments, health-care organisations, non-governmental organisations, and foreign partners – is actively involved. The healthcare infrastructure needs to be improved, and governments need to subsidise the costs, as it will allow more women to seek medical assistance. There is also a need for governments and the health sector to develop a more inclusive and responsive healthcare system that will guarantee prompt diagnosis, efficient treatment, and an improvement in the quality of life for women affected by uterine fibroids.

Alison Zuva is a PhD candidate at the Pan African Women Studies Unit at the University of Johannesburg.