This post was written by Douglas Olthof, Project Researcher and MA in International Studies at Simon Fraser University.
In 1998 Dr. Shafique Pirani returned to Uganda to visit his birthplace and childhood school. A member of the Ismaili diaspora, Dr. Pirani had been among those expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin’s government in 1972. In making preparations to visit the country of his birth, he had not intended to tackle problems of Ugandan public health, but while on that visit he bore witness to a problem that he was uniquely qualified to diagnose and address.
Years before his fateful trip to Uganda, Dr. Pirani had taken a research interest in a congenital musculoskeletal disorder known commonly as clubfoot. This disorder occurs in roughly 1 in 1000 children and, if untreated, leads to deformation of the feet. This can leave the sufferer walking on the sensitive dorsum (top) of the foot, resulting in chronic pain, immobility, ulcerations, infection and, often, stigmatization. At the time of Dr. Pirani’s visit, the most commonly practiced treatment for clubfoot around the world was corrective surgery.
Surgical treatment for clubfoot in Uganda was not an option. In a country of 28 million with a birth rate of 3.5% annually, approximately 1500 Ugandan children are born with clubfoot every year. As late as 2008 the country had 20 practicing orthopedic surgeons, most of whom were concentrated in Kampala and focused on trauma. Dr. Pirani recognized a dire need for alternative treatments for clubfoot in Uganda that could be economically and socially feasible.