Lu Trong Tuan Anh is only seven years old, but he has already experienced several operations due to a genital deformity.

He suffers from myelomeningocele, which led to difficulties in controlling urination and defecation. Because of the condition, Tuan Anh lost feeling in his legs, developed rashes all over his legs and had to wear diapers.

At school he developed an inferiority complex and kept to himself, according to his father Lu Van Phu (not his real name).

"We have spent hundreds of millions of dong seeking treatment for him and he has already undergone several operations, but the problem has not been fully solved," Phu said in a tired tone during a trip with his son from Tam Diep town in northern Ninh Binh province, 90km south of Hanoi , to Hanoi Medical University Hospital .

Tuan Anh is among more than a hundred children who come from many different provinces or cities throughout the country to receive free examinations at the hospital for genital problems.

The health checks were performed by Dr Roberto De Castro, a leading Italian expert in genital treatment under a programme that aims to help disadvantaged children with genital deformities.

De Castro is among the doctors who contributed to the successful operations on Phung Thien Nhan, a young boy with genital problems whose story of overcoming a difficult past after being abandoned by his natural mother and attacked by wild animals inspired the whole nation.

The programme on helping other disadvantaged children with similar problems was the brainchild of Greig Craft, president of the Asia Injury Prevention Foundation and Tran Mai Anh, Nhan's adoptive mother.

The work was launched two months ago, starting with initial examinations and diagnoses by De Castro, but brought hope to a lot of desperate families. Some of the children have already undergone several operations at Vietnamese hospitals, but had not fully gained satisfying results. Many are poor and thus cannot afford costly operations.

De Castro said most of the children were born with genital problems, while a few suffered from the deformity, or even absence of genitals, after traumatic accidents, including one child with severe problems after being run over by a train.

According to Mai Anh, a total of 120 children have been examined by De Castro during his four working days in Vietnam last week, although the number of families who registered for examinations is even larger.

At a press conference held in Hanoi on Aug. 19, Mai Anh said the initial examinations had succeeded in offering families advice on the correct way forward for treatment.

It also helped relieve grave concerns among parents over their children's condition, including worries about some children who had less serious problems that only required a simple operation.

Free operations under the programme will be performed by Dr De Castro when he returns to Vietnam this November.

It is expected the doctor will carry out 10 surgical operations for ten children with the most urgent conditions.

De Castro said that only two of the children he saw were impossible to cure "for the time being".

The doctor's return will serve as a ray of hope for many families, including those who have children with less urgent problems, said Nguyen Huu Tu, deputy director of the Hanoi Medical University Hospital , where Dr. De Castro performed his examination.

Tu, who will be among the doctors participating in surgery under the programme, said the hospital was now prepared and ready to accommodate and assist the work set for November.

Some doctors from Tu's hospital and possibly other hospitals will also participate to either assist or watch the operations.

The Vietnamese doctors' participation, which is considered by the programme organisers to be "technological transfer", is expected to bring Vietnam more expertise in treatment of genital deformities.

Dr De Castro said he found the doctors and interns at Hanoi Medical University Hospital to be "excellent" and that he thought Vietnamese doctors would be able to provide proper treatment for some of the less complicated cases with genital problems.

Whatever hopes the families may hold, however, are tempered by the reality of a lack of funding.

According to the programme's organisers, funding is the biggest challenge to ensuring the full success of the programme.

"A dream will remain just a dream if no one does anything to make it possible," said Mai Anh.

She urged the community to contribute to helping the desperate children and their families.

While preparing for De Castro's return in November, the families expressed their hopes towards a brighter future for their children.

"I will come back in November with my child to meet with the doctor again," said Phu in a hopeful voice./.