Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Catching up on care for the thousands of amputees in Haiti

The Haitian earthquake has left behind thousands of amputees. Many people who had limbs crushed by the falling buildings have yet to receive treatment as the demand for care is much greater than the care-giving. On top of all this amputees in Haiti face a social stigma, some Haitians say that the amputees are cursed or less than human.

From The Daily Gleaner, this Canadian Press story from author Sheryl Ubelacker talks about the Canadian attempts to heal the amputee victims from the earthquake.

"There are so many amputees, I've never seen so many amputees," says Ed Epp, executive director of Christian Blind Mission Canada, an organization that works to improve the lives of people with all types of disabilities in impoverished countries.

Estimates of the number of children and adults with amputated limbs range from 2,000 to 4,000 and as high as 7,000, he says, quoting Handicapped International and Haitian government figures.

"The numbers are all over the place. I would say probably closer to the 7,000 than the 2,000," says Epp, who recently returned to Toronto from Haiti's ravaged capital Port-au-Prince, one of many disaster zones he has worked in over the last 24 years.

"I can remember one day we met back to back a four-year-old and 17-year-old and a 48-year-old," he says, explaining that the two youngest, both girls, were partial leg amputees, while the adult had lost part of one arm.

What's critical now, say medical aid organizations, is for rehabilitation and prosthetics specialists to reach the throngs of these newly disabled and help them.

Indeed, scores of physical and occupational therapists from Canada and other countries have made their way to Haiti and continue to arrive to volunteer their services, but their numbers are still too few to meet so great a need.

"Our rehabilitation infrastructure in the country was very weak to start with," says Canadian physiotherapist Shaun Cleaver, who worked at the Hospital Albert Schweitzer for three years during the last decade and returned there in early February to co-ordinate rehab services. "There were only a few clinics, most of the acute-care hospitals did not offer rehabilitation."

Cleaver says there's a big push now in Haiti to set up facilities for manufacturing prosthetics in-country. The aim is to fit all amputees with at least temporary artificial limbs and to teach them how to wear and use them properly. Ideally, over time, prosthetics shops would produce more permanent artificial limbs tailored to each individual.

However lofty and heartfelt that goal, aid organizations and rehabilitation specialists know they are up against some pretty tough barriers.

"There's a huge stigma on people with disabilities," says Epp, whose organization has been in Haiti since 1976, working with two hospitals and running schools for physically disabled and mentally challenged children. Both schools collapsed during the quake.

"It's easy to stereotype them as cursed or - and there was that - less than human," Epp says of pervasive attitude in Haiti towards the disabled.

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