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Photo: Edwin Ongom, CURE International
Aisha holds her daughter at CURE Children’s Hospital of Uganda. Uganda surgeons are teaching Western doctors a technique to cure hydrocephalus in infants.

Western medical professionals are learning that offering medical insight in the Third World can be a two-way street. In this story, Westerners are benefiting from the teaching of some Ugandan surgeons.

Michaeleen Doucleff writes at National Public Radio, “It’s not every day that surgeons develop a new brain surgery that could save tens of thousands of babies, even a hundred thousand, each year. And it’s definitely not every day that the surgery is developed in one of the world’s poorest countries.

“But that’s exactly what neurosurgeons from Boston and Mbale, Uganda, report [last December] in the New England Journal of Medicine.

“The treatment is for a scary condition in which a baby’s head swells up, almost like balloon. It’s called hydrocephalus, or ‘water on the brain.’ But a more accurate description is ‘spinal fluid inside the brain.’

“Inside our brains, there are four chambers that continually fill up and release spinal fluid. So their volume stays constant.

“In babies with hydrocephalus, the chambers don’t drain properly. They swell up, putting pressure on the brain. If left untreated about half the children will die, and the others will be badly disabled.

“Traditionally doctors treat hydrocelphalus in the U.S. with what’s called a shunt: They place a long tube in the baby’s brain, which allows the liquid to drain into the child’s stomach.

“But a third of the time, these shunts fail within two years, says Dr. Jay Riva-Cambrin, a neurosurgeon at the University of Calgary. …

“For many kids in rural Uganda — and other poor countries — emergency neurosurgery isn’t an option. ‘They’re going to die from a shunt malfunction,’  says [Dr. Benjamin Warf, a neurosurgeon at Harvard Medical School, who led the development of the new method at a clinic in Uganda]. …

“So Warf and his colleagues decided to innovate. … In the new method, doctors basically poke a hole in the brain’s chambers so they can drain. They also prevented the chambers from filling back up by partially damaging the region of the brain that produces spinal fluid. …

“After 15 years of testing and optimizing, he and his team can finally say that their approach — at least in the short term — appears to be just as effective as the procedure commonly used here in the U.S.

“In the study, Warf and his colleagues tested the two methods on about 100 children in Uganda. After 12 months, the doctors couldn’t detect a difference in the children’s brain volume or cognitive skills. …

“The new technique has been so successful in developing countries that American doctors are now traveling to Uganda to learn how to do the technique from Ugandan doctors.

” ‘The doctors at the clinic in Uganda are wizards at the [new] method,’ says Riva-Cambrin. ‘They’re the ones that taught me the procedure.’ ”

More at NPR, here.

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