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Improving lives through spinal surgery: The Spine Africa Project

Friday, 18 May 2012 11:35
Richard Kaul
Richard Kaul

The Spine Africa Project is a non-profit organisation that provides spinal surgery to under-served areas of Africa. Its current focus is the Eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Founder Richard Kaul, spinal specialist, New Jersey Spine and Rehabilitation, New Jersey, USA, talked to Spinal News International about the project.

Why did you set up The Spine Africa Project?

I founded the project in 2008 after travelling to the DRC with a friend, who was opening a school in the area. I was given the opportunity to tour a local clinic and what I saw on that trip was life altering. There were so many men, women, and children who were in great need of care, but there were no modalities to treat them. They were dying. This was the genesis of The Spine Africa Project.

The Spine Africa Project’s website states that “Physical injuries, specifically spine related injuries, have begun to proliferate at a staggering rate” in the DRC. Why are such injuries increasing?

The proliferation of spinal injuries in the DRC can be attributed to several things. First and foremost, the harsh working conditions lack any kind of regulation or oversight.

Traditionally, males as young as 10 years old begin working in the mining sector. These are the same mines that have been the subject of the international conflict mining crisis [mining under conditions of armed conflict and human rights abuses]. These males typically work 16 hours days under militant control in incredibly unsafe conditions. Secondly, the Congolese women traditionally work in agriculture under equally arduous conditions and are often tasked with carrying 250 to 200lbs of goods strapped to their backs for seven to eight miles at a stretch. As you can imagine, the resulting spinal degeneration is widespread, quite significant, and chronically advanced. Finally, the Congolese children also present with high rates of severe spinal conditions, such as spina bifida and spinal tuberculosis. This is mainly attributed to the lack of prenatal screening and preventative medicine.

Without help from your project, what would be the probable prognosis of a person with spinal injuries?

Sadly, without the intervention of The Spine Africa Project, those afflicted would have no treatment at all. Despite the high incidence of spinal injuries in that area of the world, physicians are not trained in the field of spinal medicine and their facilities are not equipped to perform spinal surgical procedures. The prognosis for untreated patients is a grim one. The complications associated with even mild spinal conditions are so debilitating that untreated patients often have a life expectancy of only 18 to 24 months following injury.

Why is education an important aim of The Spine Africa Project?

Educating and training the Congolese physicians is vital to this project due to the fact that we currently make only three to four trips to the DRC per year; however, these injuries occur every day and many patients do not survive long enough for us to treat them. It is imperative that we educate and train these physicians so that when they are presented with spinal injuries, they will have the knowledge and experience to confidently and effectively treat their patients. This allows our project to be a self-sustaining one rather than one that is solely reliant on our team.

How does the political situation in the DRC affect your project? Is it difficult to reach the people in need?

The political situation in the DRC is a complex one. In the capital city of Kinshasa, the Government has made strides to improve the infrastructure and the living conditions; however, 900 miles away in Bukavu, where The Spine Africa Project operates, there is little semblance of a functioning government.

The DRC comes at the absolute end of the list, at number 187, on the United Nations’ ranking for living conditions and social indices. Things as commonplace as daily travel are complicated by a crumbling road system. The lack of a Government presence in this particular area has led to corruption and daily dangers.

Also, after patients are treated, there is a great challenge in contacting them and following up with them. The added absence of a functioning communication system within Bukavu means that once a patient leaves the clinic, you may never see him or her again.

How is the project being funded?

Currently, this project is funded by me and a small group of dedicated donors who contribute what they can. We have held fundraisers and have organised online donation campaigns. Thus far these have covered a small portion of the costs associated with the project. One of our goals for 2012 is to garner the support and/or partner with some of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) functioning within the Congo.

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