Chemical & Engineering News

March 10, 1997

Copyright © 1997 by the American Chemical Society

Trying to move on with new limbs

For the victims of land mines, new demining technologies are coming too late. These people need help of a different kind - medical attention and appliances to help them get on with their lives.

Injuries from land mines, if not lethal, often lead to amputation. According to the Inter national Committee of the Red Cross, one person per 384 inhabitants in Cambodia is an amputee because of land mines. In Angola, it's one person per 334 inhabitants. (For comparison, the U.S. has one amputee for reasons of trauma or disease per 22,000 inhabitants.) The victims need artificial limbs.

An Afghan woman learns to walk on her new prosthesis.

In poor countries where per-capita income could be as low as $10 per month, all that a land mine victim may be able to afford is a pair of crutches or a wooden platform on wheels powered by the victim's palms pressing and pushing on the ground. The prosthetics developed in affluent countries - madewith lightweight materials, electronics, and advanced production techniques - are reachable only in their dreams.

Some help has been available. For example, the U.S. foreign aid budget - through the Leahy War Victims Fund established by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) - provides $5 million per year in aid to war victims. The fund has provided artificial limbs and other assistance to land mine victims in more than a dozen countries, from El Salvador to Vietnam.

The Red Cross's Special Fund for the Disabled also assists amputees and other physically handicapped persons through local manufacture of prostheses and training of orthopedic technicians.

Artificial limbs can be made from various materials. A leg can consist of a socket made of good-quality leather attached to a piece of metal or wood that extends to some form of foot, which could be made of rubber.

The Red Cross uses thermoformable plastics: polypropylene for the main components and polyethylene for the cosmetic sheathing and artificial feet, when rubber is not available. Polypropylene has various advantages. It is inexpensive, light, easy to transport, and stores well for years. In addition, it is recyclable.

For low-volume production - for example, 50 limbs per month - press molding is used, with standard molds developed by the Red Cross. For high-volume production, say 250 limbs per month, an injection-molding machine is used.

According to the Red Cross, children injured at the age of 10, with a life expectancy of 40 to 50 years, will need 25 prostheses during their lifetime. At the average $50 cost of materials per prosthesis alone, it comes to $1,250, a lot of money for someone making only $10 a month. Whatever help has been available isn't nearly enough.