Promoting universal access to care for people with spinal cord injuries


Every year around the world, more than 250,000 people suffer spinal cord injuries that can cause total or partial paralysis of the limbs and trunk.

“In more than nine out of ten cases, the causes of these injuries—road traffic accidents, falls, or acts of violence—are preventable, and they can lead to serious disabilities, or even premature death,” explains Eric Weerts, Handicap International’s emergency and rehabilitation expert.People with disabilities need to overcome multiple challenges, dealing with rehabilitation care access, which is not always of a high standard, education or employment, and social inclusion. They also need to deal with the trauma of their accident: in many cases, the people affected suddenly find themselves disabled. It’s very hard for them and their friends and family to accept it.”                                                

Handicap International has been working with people with spinal injuries since 1989. At the request of national health authorities, Handicap International sets up adapted care systems to provide people with spinal cord injuries with rehabilitation sessions and psychosocial support, both for the injured and their families, and to promote their inclusion in society. The organization also raises the awareness of spinal cord care providers in order to strengthen the inclusion of people with disabilities in society.

“We conduct risk prevention actions to help people avoid accidents that cause spinal cord injuries, and their consequences. For instance we have been training former road accident victims with spinal cord injuries to raise the awareness of students on road safety issues,” explains Eric.

Handicap International, in partnership with International Spinal Cord Society (ISCOS), also responds in emergency and conflict situations: “Too often, we find that basic civil protection standards are not applied in war zones. In addition to common injuries, such as fractures, many civilian victims of attacks suffer spinal cord injuries. Many people with disabilities do not benefit from appropriate care-management, and their immediate needs, such as health and rehabilitation, or their more complex requirements, like pain management, incontinence and loss of mobility, are not met. We are currently working to determine care-management standards criteria for the most vulnerable people in emergency situations. This is one of our priorities,” explains Eric.

Handicap International has provided rehabilitation care for people with spinal cord injuries following earthquakes in Turkey, Pakistan, China, Haiti, and Nepal, strengthened their social inclusion and ensured they are included in the reconstruction process. These efforts include enforcing their right to financial compensation and ensuring the accessibility of their homes. The organization has also raised awareness of humanitarian actors to ensure their services are accessible to people with spinal cord injuries.

Handicap International has more than 25 years of experience in setting up rehabilitation centers for people with spinal cord injuries and the care-management of victims. These initiatives include the establishment of rehabilitation centers for people with spinal cord injuries in Battambang, Cambodia and in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

To increase the autonomy of local teams, Handicap International trains health actors to provide care to people with spinal cord injuries and to open appropriate centers. In Vietnam, the organization has created a national spinal cord injury care-management program in Ho Chi Minh City, which includes nine rehabilitation centers. This program is part of the national health policy in partnership with the National Rehabilitation Centre in Bach Mai hospital in Hanoi. This model, developed in conjunction with the Asian Spinal Cord Network (ASCON), aims at decentralizing care to make it accessible for all and has provided Vietnam’s neighbors with both a model to follow and an important technical resource.