Grants to Fund Expanded Prosthetic Program in Vietnam and Haiti

A Mercer On Mission project that provides low-cost prosthetics to amputees in developing countries has received two substantial grants to help with those efforts. The National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance awarded Dr. Ha Van Vo, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, with a Sustainable Vision Grant of $37,275 to help him perfect his design and set up a prosthetic lab and clinic in Vietnam. In March, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship awarded the University a $50,000 grant to replicate the Vietnam program in Haiti, where the 2010 earthquake left thousands of Haitians without limbs.

Dr. Vo invented a low-cost prosthetic that can be fitted without full customization, which makes it an affordable alternative to those in developing nations who must often go without. Last summer, Dr. Vo and Dr. Ramachandran Radharamanan, a professor in the School of Engineering, led a Mercer On Mission team to work with Vietnamese amputees living in and around Ho Chi Minh City. In all, the team fitted 35 prosthetics and cast 27 people for later fittings. Dr. Vo and Dr. Radharamanan will return to Vietnam to complete the lab and to lead a team of students to fit the 27 people already slated for prosthetics, as well as 63 more amputees.

In March, University Minister and Dean of the Chapel Craig McMahan, who coordinates the Mercer On Mission program, traveled to Haiti with CBF officials to lay the groundwork for an exploratory trip in late April and a follow-up trip this summer. In April, Dr. Vo hopes to deliver as many as 20 prosthetics and, upon returning from Vietnam, he will travel back to Haiti with a Mercer delegation to Haiti to fit another 30 amputees. In addition to fitting the amputees, Dr. Vo hopes to work with local officials to explore ways to produce the prosthetics in that country.

Dr. Vo recently expanded his operation into a lab space in the new Science and Engineering Building, where he will be able to manufacture larger numbers of the prosthetics while training Mercer students and the lab technicians who are charged with building labs in developing nations. He and his students will build prosthetics between trips to Haiti and Vietnam to meet the needs of as many amputees as possible, he said.

“We want to do whatever we can to help them,” Dr. Vo said.

The Vietnam program is slated for three years, and Dr. Vo hopes to expand the program to India and Thailand in later years. The Alliance grant will help those efforts and will be used for working on the design of other parts of the prostheses, including the knee, pylon, ankle and foot.

Because the project is addressing a worldwide problem, it has garnered national and international attention, including praise from the Clinton Global Initiative. The problem of amputees who must go without prosthetics is particularly acute in Vietnam. More than 2,000 Vietnamese are injured each year by land mines and unexploded bombs left during the Vietnam War. An estimated 100,000 amputees live in Vietnam today, and there are more than 18 million amputees around the world, with more than 80 percent of those living in developing countries.

The situation in Haiti is similarly dire. The Jan. 12 earthquake that pulverized buildings throughout Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, also injured thousands of people, and many have undergone amputations. According to recent reports, conservative estimates by aid groups suggest that at least 75 people per day face amputations because of the quake. The desperate poverty of the country means that few, if any Haitians, will be able to afford conventional prosthetics.

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