Sunday, May 26, 2013

Buy A Leg

Sculpture outside of the COPE Centre, composed of UXO remnants

The COPE Centre in Vientiane is a museum unlike any you’ve likely seen before. COPE stands for Cooperative  Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise and is dedicated to the production and provision of artificial limbs and supportive devices for those who have lost limbs or have mobility restrictions. The loss of limbs in Laos has particular prominence in the country, primarily because of the continued presence of UXOs (or unexploded ordnances) in the country.

Some background on this. During the Vietnam War, Lao suffered greatly as a neighbour to the conflict. Bombing runs over the region were indiscriminate in their targeting, resulting in Laos being more heavily bombed than even Vietnam, on a per capita basis. The estimates quoted reveal some astonishing statistics: approximately two million tons of bombs were dropped over the country in the period from 1964 to 1973, enough to average a planeload of bombs every eight minutes for the nine years. The chart below shows the individual target points for each of these bombing runs, with parts of the country turned red by the sheer number of these missions:

Of the bombs dropped, the majority consisted of cluster casings that would open and spread smaller bombs (known colloquially as “bombies”), as pictured below:

The estimated number of these submunitions still existing in the country today, forty years after being dropped, is approximately 78 million, and they continue to pose a danger to both life and limb. The number of people killed each year through encounters with these bombs still averages three hundred or more and stories fill the news on a regular basis of the latest deaths. The COPE Centre goes to great lengths to tell these individual stories to avoid having the details swept away by the numbers. Tragically, many of the deaths are of children who discover the bombs and do not know to keep away from them. Those that do survive often suffer horrendous injuries – nearly forty percent of the patients at the COPE Centre who receive prostheses have been injured as a result of contact with an UXO. The issue of UXO contamination extends beyond those directly affected, to the point that Laos has added the containment of UXOs to its list of Millennium Development Goals to be achieved by 2015. The United Nations is working alongside the Government in an effort to help it achieve this goal. But a discussion of the MDGs merits a separate examination and another blog post.
Picture of Survivor of UXO Contact
Display of prosthetic legs
The patients suffering losses due to UXOs may be the highest profile, due to the sensitivity of the issue, but the COPE Centre also works with those who need assistance due to losses suffered as a result of traffic accidents, diseases such as leprosy and birth defects such as club feet. While the events bringing patients to the COPE Centre are undeniably grim, the Centre exists as a place of hope for those who have benefitted from their services. Such is the case with Santar (with the following story taken directly from COPE’s website –

Since a traffic accident two years ago, 13-year-old  Santar was confined to the house.  Santar had been injured when crossing a road.  His deaf father had called him to cross but hadn’t heard that a truck was coming.  Following the accident Santar lost one leg and the other was severly damaged. His left foot was fixed with his toes pointing downwards so that he was not able to stand or walk. Before the accident Santar was like any normal 8 year old boy who had been attending school and was a very active child.
In Vientiane, local surgeons corrected his left foot.  Then the local clinical staff fitted a prosthesis for his right leg and an orthosis to his left. Over a period of four months Santar received regular physiotherapy at the centre.  As a result of his treatment Santar began to realize that returning to school was achievable and this helped to sustained Santar through the four months of treatment. Now living in Vientiane, Santar is at school studying English, enjoys cooking, swimming, computing and is currently top of his class! No longer the depressed boy we first met, he is now optimistic about his future.

Stories like this abound at the COPE Centre, making a visit here far from depressing. Rather, inspiration can be drawn from both the patients and those seeking to help them.
As with many small organizations, COPE struggles for funding to support its services. In an effort to raise awareness, it has undertaken many different initiatives, including the “Buy a Leg” campaign and developing a line of products, such as those pictured below, designed to raise awareness through their cheeky approach to the issue. I decided against the “Hello Kitty” shirt, but couldn’t pass up on the key chain.

The COPE Centre proved to be that rare combination of education and poignancy – stories to reach both the head and heart. As a museum experience, I expect it will remain unique for me. For more on the issue of UXOs and their impact, have a look at the following video, produced by UNDP: