A low-profile aid organisation has finished its first year treating Tibetans with a debilitating bone disease, accomplishing much of its work with donations from Chinese and foreign supporters. The quest for donations travels by word of mouth, because the group hopes to avoid attention from parties that might threaten its status as a legal organisation. The Lhasa-registered group, called the Project for Strengthening of Tibetan Traditional Medicine, diagnoses and treats a bone disease common among the 900 people in Tibet's Lundrup county. 'It's the closest thing to medical care they've ever seen,' said Beijing-based volunteer Nicole Bernard. The illness is called big-bone, or Kashin-Beck, disease. It causes arm and leg bones to grow too large, leaving sufferers in pain and unable to work. Project co-ordinators - a staff of three full-timers and two part-timers, plus Ms Bernard - also rely on donors in Beijing to give warm clothes and money for school supplies to the villages where they operate. A Slovenian woman began planning the project four years ago and gained the approval of Tibet authorities a year ago. The group is believed to be the only organisation to work exclusively with big-bone disease. Project staff have found several non-profit groups in Germany to help raise money for medicine and 30 individuals have agreed to sponsor children with the disease. The disease affects several million people in an arc from southeastern Siberia, through Shanxi province and into the Tibetan plateau. Experts think it might come from organic matter in the drinking water, a lack of selenium in the diet or a barley fungus. In some areas, up to 89 per cent of the population is affected. The group's volunteers X-ray sufferers' hands to diagnose the disease, and offer free medication. The group also trains doctors to return to the county and runs seven greenhouses that grow selenium-rich bak choy, eggplant and tomatoes.