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Surgery rekindles hope for tsunami mothers

Indian couples whose children were killed in the Asian tsunami are hoping a surgery will reverse sterilizations carried out under a state-sponsored family planning program aimed at controlling India’s runaway population growth.
Geetha, an Indian fisherwoman, looks on in Nagapattinam district
Geetha, 29, an Indian fisherwoman, lost two daughters to the tsunami and is now pregnant.Babu / Reuters file
/ Source: Reuters

It’s the most unlikely setting for hope — a dingy shack filled haphazardly with pots and pans, surrounded by puddles of filthy water, overflowing drains and rain-soaked furniture.

Its resident, Geetha, a fisherwoman living in a camp for tsunami survivors in southern India, is five months pregnant.

She is the first survivor to conceive after undergoing surgery to reverse her sterilization in the hope of having children, after daughters Jotika, 5, and Sosika, 3, were swept away by the sea last year.

Her success story has rekindled the faith of other couples desperate to become parents again and fill a void created by a catastrophe that killed more than 231,000 people in a dozen Indian Ocean nations, most of them women and children.

So far, more than 50 women have undergone the surgery — called recanalization — to reconnect their Fallopian tubes and reverse sterilizations carried out under a state-sponsored family planning program aimed at controlling India’s runaway population growth.

Although only four of them have conceived, the possibility of giving birth again to overcome the loss of their boys and girls, has seen dozens more registering for the surgery.

“I am overjoyed, but I will feel happier only after I have a safe delivery,” said Geetha, 29, holding her stomach as she spoke outside her shack in Nagapattinam, the main town on India’s worst affected southeastern coast.

“We can never forget the two girls we lost but the newborn will help reduce our sorrow,” she said. “If this turns out to be a girl, we will name her after one of the girls we lost.”

Bhaskaran, her husband, is equally nervous.

“We raised our girls with so much love and affection and then lost them. So we don’t want to celebrate until the child is born,” he said.

Rebuilding lives
The Dec. 26 tsunami killed at least 6,065 people in Nagapattinam district in Tamil Nadu state, more than a third of them children.

For families which lost all their offspring, the need to have children again is a major part of rebuilding their lives, said voluntary groups and mental health experts.

A fairly complicated surgical procedure, recanalization has a success rate of less than 50 percent in women in their active reproductive years. Much also depends on the health and size of the Fallopian tubes, gynecologists  say.

Nevertheless, women like Anandi, Geetha’s neighbor who lost all her three boys, are confident their prayers will be answered.

“It’s been seven months since I was operated on but we haven’t had any luck. But looking at Geetha, I am still very hopeful,” said Anandi, 26.

Besides causing sterilized couples to consider recanalization, the tsunami has given a general boost to pregnancies among survivors in India and Indonesia, doctors said.

In Indonesia’s worst-hit Aceh region, many survivors were eager to have babies but faced hurdles like trauma and poor living conditions, said Dr. Brian Sripahastuti, UNICEF’s reproductive specialist in Aceh.

“I predict that 3-6 months from now, there will be a lot of babies born in barracks, though not generally in Aceh,” Sripahastuti said, referring to the temporary wooden structures sheltering the homeless.

In India’s Nagapattinam too, doctors said they witnessed a slight increase in the number of pregnancies between February and June when many young survivors got married.

“Sterilizations are rare now. Survivors say they will consider it only after they have three or four children,” said Dr. P. Seethala, a leading Nagapattinam gynecologist.

With at least half of the recanalized women unlikely to conceive, families will eventually have to consider adopting orphans and the surgery may end up as temporary consolation, authorities and aid workers said.

But many recanalized fisherwomen were desperate to conceive again as they feared that their husbands might leave them and marry younger women, Dr. Seethala said.

“Some fishermen want to use this as an opportunity to dump their sterilized wives and marry again,” she said. “This is proving to be traumatic for their wives and they want to conceive as soon as they are recanalized.”