Amazing World

Affordable prostheses for the developing world

Losing a limb is life-altering enough, without the loss also carrying an impossible price tag. In the developing world, amputations are frequently required as a result of accident, illness and armed conflict, but access to efficient and effective modern prostheses is often financially out of reach. UK inventor Ed Pennington-Ridge has created a new design of prosthesis that aims to answer this need. A flexible and high-tech design made out of simple and cheap materials, Ed’s invention is intended to be something that can be made in any developing country workshop, but offer the movability of something 30 times the price. 

The BBC spoke with Ed about his invention in June; in the interview they released, the prostheses’ creator stressed the importance of his design being something affordable, long-lasting and achievable in the developing countries he designed them for: 

“It’s got to be easy to produce at the right price. It has to be something that can be mended easily, and something where the materials will last for a long time in storage or in very high temperatures.” Ed is confident that the design he has developed will meet these criteria, and would be possible to produce in any typical workshop in a developing country or area. 

Ed’s prostheses cost under £100 – a sharp contrast to the thousands that some can cost. However, being affordable and possible to produce is only half the battle, if the technology doesn’t provide enough mobility – Ed’s design may be simple, but with a springy material forming the base of the foot, and a mobile ankle joint, it provides much more ease of movement than current affordable alternatives. 

In 2018, the design was trialled by patients in Tanzania, and is still being provided to patients in need in the country, in part via the International Refugee Trust (IRT). Reporting on this trial, Longini Mtalothe Principal of the Tanzania Training Centre for Orthopaedic Technologists (TATCOT) told the BBC about one of his clients – a Maasai cattle handler who said that the foot gave him much more freedom of movement when travelling with his cattle over difficult terrains.  

Providing this ability to keep active was an essential goal for Ed – not only is this the ideal for any working prostheses, but he felt it was particularly essential given that the demographic requiring amputations in these countries is largely active young men. As he told the BBC, “These are young soldiers. These are young guys getting knocked off mopeds. When you fit them with a prothesis, they want to go back to high activity lifestyles.” There is also the need to travel and work, especially in cases such as the Maasai man that Mtalo mentioned. 

IRT also points out that there are hundreds of thousands of refugees and young people living with amputations in the developing world, many of whom have lost their limbs due to armed conflict. One statistic the charity quotes is that around 30,000 Syrians are estimated to have lost limbs from the war in their country. 

A Western-made prosthetic can cost up to USD$3000, and cheaper alternatives are limited in what they can offer. Even worse, affording a prosthetic isn’t the full story – prostheses need to be replaced over five years or so, due to wear and tear and changes in the body. For children, this is more like once a year. This makes the need for a locallymade, affordable option all the more crucial. 

In response to this, IRT has partnered with Ed to help support the development of his prostheses. As the charity states in its statement about the partnership: “The combination of simplicity of design, availability of raw materials, and ability to manufacture in situ, promises transformational outcomes for the world’s poorest amputees, many of whom are refugees.” 

With the IRT’s support, Ed’s invention has begun reaching those who need it, although Ed is still working on his design to continue to improve its efficiency. Further tests shall carry out in Tanzania as these adjustments are made, so Ed can provide the best product possible, and in the meantime, through IRT, these prostheses have already begun to restore mobility and change lives, without an unobtainable cost.