World Pediatric Project representatives meet with 12-year-old Malia and her mother to plan for her latest treatment for severe leg bowing. (Photo: PROVIDED)

Two girls needing complex orthopaedic care became the newest Virgin Islands patients to benefit this year from the World Pediatric Project, a United States-based non-profit organisation working to provide better access to specialised surgical care in the region. WPP CEO Vafa Akhavan and Executive Director Lauren McIntosh-Shallow attended the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States meetings hosted here this month to get more information about medical needs in the Caribbean and Latin America.

“We provide tertiary critical paediatric care, at no cost to the families, throughout the region,” Ms. McIntosh-Shallow explained.

WPP works with medical professionals to provide highly specialised treatment in a variety of areas, including urology, general orthopaedics, scoliosis, extremities, ophthalmology, neurosurgery, craniofacial reconstructive plastic surgery, and cardiology, she added.

She said the organisation focuses both on providing immediate medical care and making sure children can more easily access specialised care in the long term.

The donor-funded organisation — which operates offices in the US, Belize and St. Vincent and the Grenadines — brings together non-medical volunteers to coordinate patient care and a network of volunteer surgeons to carry out complex surgeries.

Access to care

Dr. Julian Metts, a now-retired Virginia dentist who recently celebrated his 90th birthday, formed the group in the early 2000s, when he met a girl in need of help while on a trip to Guyana. He partnered with a local Rotary club to transport her back to Richmond, Virginia to receive care.

“That evolved into his desire to establish this access for children to hospital care,” Mr. Akhavan said. “Over the past 23 years, the organisation has evolved and changed and grown.”

Seven-year-old Mary and her parents meet with World Pediatric Project representatives to discuss their facilitation of her treatment for congenital scoliosis. (Photo: PROVIDED)

In that time, the organisation has provided services to 6,696 children in the Caribbean, according to a recent WPP report.

Ms. McIntosh-Shallow said the OECS Health Unit recently granted WPP “observership status,” which she said recognises it as a development partner.

“It gives us the platform to be heard by the entire region through one channel,” she said.

That megaphone should help WPP connect with more families needing care, she added.

VI patients

In the VI, WPP has assisted with five procedures for four children requiring specialised care in the areas of orthopaedics, spinal surgery and general surgery. Between those cases and the 23 other medical services provided here since 2012, WPP estimates that it has helped cover more than $284,000 worth of care for children in the territory.

Seven-year-old Mary and 12- year-old Malia are the most recent children to benefit from WPP’s United States Referrals Program. Mary was born with congenital scoliosis, and Malia has a condition called Blount’s disease.

“These two children actually came to us by luck, or it might be fate,” Ms. McIntosh-Shallow said.

The scoliosis caused a 90-degree curve in Mary’s spine, which affected her mobility and ability for her lungs and other organs to grow, according to WPP.

However, she travelled to Philadelphia last March to begin treatment at Shriners Children’s hospital, and the organisation made plans for her ongoing care while the hardware placed in her body helps her spine straighten as she grows.

“It was an extremely complicated surgery, but she’s doing fine,” Ms. McIntosh-Shallow said. “She’s such a beautiful, smart little girl. That’s what makes it all worthwhile.”

Helping Malia

In April 2019, Malia visited the St. Vincent Pediatric Surgical Hub, WPP’s centralised centre for the eastern Caribbean.

Her condition causes severe leg bowing, and she was immediately able to get treatment, according to the organisation.

It will take multiple surgeries to fully correct the bowing, and Ms. McIntosh-Shallow said Malia made the trip to Shriners Children’s hospital in St. Louis for the next step the same week as the OECS meeting was held here.

Though the recovery will be long, she said WPP is helping Malia’s family find accommodation in St. Louis while she heals.

To help more children like Malia, Ms. McIntosh-Shallow said, the organisation hopes to roll out 50 teams in the region that will focus on diagnostic work, allowing it to identify children in need of care and help them travel to the St. Vincent hub for surgery.

Long-term plans

WPP is also making plans for the future of tertiary care, she added.

“We want to facilitate sustainable models of care,” she said.

One component is sending out teams to provide training in neonatal intensive care to hospitals in the Caribbean.

The St. Vincent hub also provides a venue for surgeons to visit and gain first-hand experience in treating such cases, she said.

Mr. Akhavan said a study published in the British Medical Journal calculated the value added by WPP’s hub from 2002 to 2019, finding that its medical care resulted in considerable economic benefits for the patients’ home countries.

“They calculated that we added more than 580 disability-adjusted life years,” he said. “Think of it as we added almost six centuries of life to the island.”

He continued, “Obviously, it’s important because it’s the right thing to do. It’s the moral thing to do. It’s the ethical thing to do. Without question, that’s what drives all of us. We also need to consider the economic impact.”

When children benefit from a better quality of life, they end up having a greater impact on their country’s economy, which has a profound effect when multiplied by the thousands of people treated, Mr. Akhavan said.

Noncommunicable diseases

Ms. McIntosh-Shallow said WPP representatives are also examining the ways they can address noncommunicable diseases that are on the rise in the region, as well as mental health.

In the coming years, she added, WPP hopes to expand its services in the VI as well as Guyana, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago.

With the assistance of Rotary and other community groups, the organisation also hopes to connect with more families that could benefit from its services, Mr. Akhavan said.

In addition to the existing medical hubs, he added, WPP would like to add more in the Caribbean and Latin America.

“We’re on a growth path because there are so many children that need the care,” he said.