3D printer technology project makes prosthetic limbs for amputees in Haiti

A child amputee sits up in her hospital bed in Jacmel. She is one of the many victims of the violent earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12, 2010. (Credit: UN Photo/Marco Dormino)

One of the biggest 3D printing technology projects in the developing world is for making prosthetic limbs in Haiti, where amputees often face debilitating poverty and social exclusion.

The majority, about 80 percent, of the world’s estimated 33 million people with limb loss live in poor countries and are often without access to prosthetics care. Amputees are victims of war, violent conflict, natural disasters, unsafe working conditions, and lack of healthcare.

Haiti has a particularly large number of amputees as a result of the 2010 earthquake, which killed more than 200,000 people and caused injuries that required amputations for another 4,000 people. Health experts say the infrastructure to provide prosthetic care is almost completely nonexistent, and when it is available, prosthetics are almost exclusively unaffordable to those that need them most.

A non-profit organization, LimbForge, is training humanitarian NGOs and local clinicians to meet this need by creating affordable and culturally-appropriate prosthetics using a 3D printer, the Ultimaker. LimbForge says its 3D printing workshop in Haiti is one of the largest ever in a developing country.

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“The mere fact that we’re teaching 3D printing to a group of prosthetists, that’s never been done anywhere in the world,” Jeff Erenstone, a LimbForge prosthetist, said in a video produced by the organization.

By measuring the amputee’s remaining limb, trained prosthetists create proportionally-sized designs that closely resembles the wearer’s skin tone. Limbforge says enhancing aesthetic appeal is critical in Haiti, where amputees are highly stigmatized and consequently unwilling or unable to ask others for help.

“I ask people for money to eat, because I need to feed myself and my daughter,” Danis Exilus, an amputee who was fitted with an Ultimaker-produced prosthetic, said in the video. “I can’t work. I can’t even wash my clothes.”

Danis was trapped under the rubble of her home during the earthquake six years ago. In order to escape, she needed to have her arm amputated, and soon found herself living on the streets and abandoned by her family.

“I thought the new prosthetic arm was going to be useless, but when I put it on, it felt different from what I thought,” she said after being fitted with her first prosthetic arm device. “My daughter said she loves me more, because she can actually hold both of my hands now.”

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In a country where the majority of the population is challenged to afford food — much less health care — any prosthetic design needs to be made affordable if it is to reach those in most need. LimbForge’s project in Haiti creates all of its devices from flexible plastic, which take 16 to 20 hours to print and cost somewhere between USD $8 to $14 for the raw materials.

Thousands of Haitians with disabilities have also received support from organizations like Handicap International, which provided 1,400 people with orthopedic fittings and distributed some 5,600 mobility aids after the 2010 earthquake. In the months following Hurricane Matthew last fall, the organization launched another emergency response to supply wheelchairs, crutches and walking frames, organize rehabilitation sessions and provide psychological support to victims in the city of Les Cayes.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com