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Myanmar: Than Htay's new leg

24-12-2003 Feature

More than 9,000 people have been fitted with artificial limbs at the five orthopaedic centres in Myanmar supported by the ICRC since 1986, when it first started working in the country. Roland Sidler reports, in the first part of a new series on ICRC orthopaedics in Asia.

The ICRC’s limb-fitting programme, carried out in cooperation with the Ministry of Health, was initially aimed at introducing the most recent limb-manufacturing techniques, providing expertise and training national staff in the use of sophisticated machinery and synthetic materials.


  23-year-old Kyaw at work on an artificial limb at the Hpa-An orthopaedic centre.  
Photo R. Sidler/ICRC, ref. mm-e-00053

In December 2001 the ICRC signed an agreement with the ministry and the Myanmar Red Cross, authorizing it to set up its own limb-fitting and physical rehabilitation centre in Hpa-An, east of the capital, Yangon, towards the border with Thailand. It's in this area that the great majority of mine victims are to be found, as a result of the tensions existing since independence in 1948.

Building work began on the Hpa-An centre in late May 2002 and the first artificial limbs were produced in September that year. The ICRC also hired some 20 national staff, eight of whom went on to be trained as orthopaedic technologists.

Since the centre opened it has fitted more than 600 patients, most of them young people. Many were combatants, but others we re civilians, including children, injured while going about their daily activities in the mines infected areas.

Today, 23-year-old Kyaw puts the finishing touches on a polypropylene leg produced for Than Htay, aged 34. His colleagues, Yin Mar and Nan Saw, carry out a final inspection of the main pieces. Than Htay lives in the little village of Nyaung Chaung, around 80 km south of Hpa-An, so it will not be easy for him to return to the centre if the leg breaks. Under the expert eye of specialist John Maree he performs a series of movements to ensure that the new leg is properly fitted. No one is allowed to leave the centre until all the tests have been carried out successfully.


  Than Htay, complete with his new leg, at his bicycle repair shop in Nyaung Chaung.  
Photo R. Sidler/ICRC, ref. mm-e-00054

Than Htay may be a bachelor but he's never alone - he lives with 30 relatives at the edge of his village, in three wooden houses built on stilts to protect against flooding and snakes. He was injured in a mine blast in 1991. After his leg was amputated, he was fitted with an artificial leg that did not prove very durable. Now he has almost fully recovered his mobility. On his way back home, he calls in to check how things are going in the bicycle-repair shop where he works. He doesn’t want to waste any time - tomorrow morning he will be back on the job.

“Besides its limb-fitting work, the ICRC is carrying out many other humanitarian activities,” says Christophe Menu, head of the ICRC offic e in Hpa-An. “For example, we visit people deprived of freedom. We check their treatment and conditions and enable them to send Red Cross messages to their families.”

The ICRC also provides several medical facilities with basic necessities, restores access to drinking water in places of detention and health centres and assesses the situation of civilians in hostile zones, providing assistance if needed.