Looking at bright futures
Until five-year-old Sintayehu Belachew had an eye operation she lived in a dark world, unable to see or to walk. Now this little girl with bright eyes takes a few steps in oversize clothes and gives her hero, Dr Ephrem Kibru, the thumbs-up.
The blindness prevention and treatment organisation Orbis opened up the world for Sintayehu, who comes from a village about 300km northwest of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
Orbis - whose slogan is "Saving sight worldwide' - has operated in 90 countries, including South Africa.
Nearly 3.5million people received medical and optical treatments from Orbis in 2011. Laser eye surgery was performed on more than 76000 people.
One of the more unusual operating theatres globally is at the Orbis Flying Eye Hospital, a converted DC-10 aircraft that has treatment and recovery rooms and a classroom for the training of medical professionals (nearly 15000 in 2011).
A converted MD-10-30 cargo plane will replace the DC-10 in 2013 as the next-generation flying hospital.
The organisation says loss of sight is often linked to poverty.
"Eighty percent of the world's visually impaired suffer from conditions that are avoidable or curable but go untreated due to lack of access to quality eye care," it says.
Childhood blindness is most widespread in sub-Saharan Africa. To tackle, this Orbis has expanded its work in the region.
More than half of children born blind will die in their first year of life without care, says Dr Paulos Quana, founder of the ophthalmology department at the Menelik II Hospital in Addis Ababa.
This general hospital, in partnership with Orbis, offers a range of services, including cataract surgery, cornea transplants, a retina clinic and eyesight screening. The Eye Bank of Ethiopia is based here.
Orbis is also committed to eradicating the common problem of blinding trachoma in the mountainous area of Gamo Gofa, in southwest Ethiopia. This dry, dusty area, where flies abound, predisposes villagers to the disease.
Face- and hand-washing, sanitising the environment, the distribution of antibiotics and trichiasis lid surgery have gone a long way towards saving sight in this region.
Closer to home, Orbis, in partnership with the KwaZulu-Natal health department, established a paediatric eye care centre at the Inkosi Albert Luthuli Central Hospital, in Durban, in 2011.
Paediatric ophthalmologist Dr Dharmesh Parbhooo said: "This is a centre for children with the most complicated eye problems."
The only other specialised eye care surgical and treatment unit for children in South Africa is at the Red Cross Memorial Children's Hospital, in Cape Town.
After a full day in the operating theatre in Durban, Parbhoo said he had operated on seven children, including a five-month-old girl.
"She was born with congenital cataracts and we operated on her early enough so that she has a better chance in future.
"Paediatric eye care intervention in the province is educating healthcare providers, parents and traditional leaders about the major factors facing children so that they get timeously and appropriately referred to any eye institution instead of waiting for years," he said.
Orbis chose KwaZulu-Natal for its first programme in South Africa because more than 3.5million children live in the province and "28% of the country's blind and visually impaired children" live there.
Achievements in the first year of the programme include:
- 175 children had sight-saving surgery;
- 518 children with complicated sight problems were referred to the Orbis paediatric eye care centre in Durban;
- Four ophthalmologists received paediatric surgical training, 20 doctors were trained in paediatric eye health management and 100 primary healthcare nurses were trained in basic eye screening; and
- 24 optometrists and ophthalmic nurses were trained to assess and refer children with learning difficulties.
Orbis has partnered with the University of Cape Town and the Red Cross to offer African doctors a paediatric ophthalmology fellowship.
Only an estimated 24 paediatric ophthalmologists are working on the continent, despite the high incidence of blindness in children here.
About half of children's blindness is preventable and Orbis urges all caregivers to be aware of the early signs of childhood vision problems.
To find out more about Orbis and how you can join the fight for sight, visit www.orbis.org.za or www.facebook.com/ORBIS-SA or call Orbis on 021-447-7135
- Ensure that your newborn's eyes are checked - he could be born with cataracts or could develop conjunctivitis;
- Recurring infection. "Puffy eyes, redness, excessive watering or discharge from the eye are signs to watch out for." Immediate medical attention is required;
- Crossed eyes (squinting), eyes that are not the same size, or that protrude;
- A milky whiteness in the pupil (the black centre of the eye) can indicate cataracts;
- Injuries to eyes are common. Never wash eyes with anything other than cool, clean tap water; don't try to remove foreign objects yourself. Get medical care urgently. - Source: Orbis