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J Neurosurg Pediatr. 2009 Jul;4(1):4-9. doi: 10.3171/2009.1.PEDS08193.

A model for neurosurgical humanitarian aid based on 12 years of medical trips to South and Central America.

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Department of Neurosurgery, Virginia Commonwealth University Health System, Richmond, Virginia, USA.


The pediatric neurosurgical mission trips led by physicians at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Health Systems began in 1996 with the formation of Medical Outreach to Children, founded by 1 of the authors (J.D.W.) after a visit to Guatemala. Since then, 19 surgical trips to 4 different countries in Central and South America have been coordinated from 1996 to 2008. This humanitarian work serves a number of purposes. First and foremost, it provides children with access to surgical care that they would otherwise not receive, thereby significantly improving their quality of life. Second, the visiting surgical team participates in the education of local physicians, parents, and caregivers to help improve the healthcare provided to the children. Last, the team works to promote sustainable global health solutions in the countries it travels to by generating a forum for clinical and public health research discourse. Thus far, a total of 414 children have undergone 463 operations, including 154 initial shunt surgeries, 110 myelomeningocele repairs, 39 lipoma resections, 33 tethered cord releases, 18 shunt revisions, 16 encephalocele repairs, 9 lipomyelomeningocele repairs, and 7 diastematomyelia repairs. The complication rate has been 5-8%, and the team has obtained reliable follow-up in approximately 77% of patients. A correlation was found between an increase in the number of trained neurosurgeons in the host countries and a decrease in the average age of patients treated by the visiting surgical team over time. It is also hypothesized that a decrease in the percentage of myelomeningocele repairs performed by the surgical team (as a fraction of total cases between 1996 and 2006) correlates to an increase in the number of local neurosurgeons able to treat common neural tube defects in patients of younger ages. Such analysis can be used by visiting surgical teams to assess the changing healthcare needs in a particular host country.

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