Experience with 43 patients with gastrointestinal fistulas associated with a large abdominal wall defect is presented. The overall mortality rate was 60 per cent; 37 per cent in patients who underwent the primary procedure in the home unit and 74 per cent in those from elsewhere. An average of five operations per patient was performed. The abdominal wall defect developed spontaneously as a consequence of postoperative peritonitis in 24 patients (mortality rate, 71 per cent) and was created intentionally as a part of the 'open management' in 19 cases (mortality rate, 47 per cent). Errors in management were identified in 63 per cent of the patients and this adversely influenced the outcome. Patients with this condition should be referred early to tertiary care facilities where diversion of the intestinal leak away from the defect, prompt control of the associated intra-abdominal infection and adequate handling of the defect itself can be performed.