Restoring sight: Himalayan cataract project team in Eritrea

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Since Eritrea’s independence there has been significant improvement in the provision of health care. In an effort to improve health care further, the Ministry of Health has been working in partnership with organizations in order to provide medical assistance to people who have special cases, one of which is eye care.

The Himalayan cataract project (HCP) ophthalmologists’ team, which stayed in Eritrea from 10th to 15th November, conducted eye surgery to about one thousand people who had been in a waiting list. The team, consisting of 18 members, including Dr. Menghis Bairu, a representative from Eritrea, arrived with essential equipment for the mission. The members of the team include surgeons, medical volunteers, media professionals and HCP staff from Nepal, the USA and Ethiopia. During its short stay, the HCP team was able to perform successful operations with the collaboration of Eritrean doctors and nurses.

 

The Himalayan cataract project was created in 1994 by Dr. Geoffrey Tabin and Dr. Sanduk Ruti with a view to establishing a sustainable eye care infrastructure in the Himalaya. At the beginning, HCP responded to a pressing need of eye care in the Himalayan region. With programs in Nepal, Tibet, China, Bhutan, India, Sikkim, and Pakistan the team has been able to restore sight to tens of thousands of blind people every year since 1994. As a non-profit organization its top priority is to reach the greatest number of unserved blind people, with the highest quality care, at the lowest possible cost.

Besides, as Mr. Brandan Brendan Callahan, program manager of HCP, explained, the HCP basically focuses on three things -- providing the right equipment to clinics and hospitals for proper eye care, providing training to medical professionals inside their country or abroad and performing cataract surgery. Parallel to the task of cataract surgery, exchanging knowledge and experience is another advantage of working together in partnership.

In Eritrea, the HCP ophthalmologists’ team conducted surgery in Asmara at Birhan Aini Hospital. Around one thousand patients became beneficiaries of the program. According to Dr. Kahsai Fisehatsion, Medical Director of Birhan Aini Hospital, the patients are of different age, including children and elderly people of both genders. Some of the patients had been in the waiting list of the hospital and others came from Keren, Mendefera, Barentu, Massawa and other parts of Eritrea. Dr. Kahsai also said, “We first do medical examination on the patients and prepare them for surgery when we find them qualified to do the surgery.” In this way, many Eritrean cataract patients were able to get cured from blindness.

Cataract is responsible for half of all avoidable blindness. Cataract is formed when the eye’s natural lens becomes cloudy as a result of eye tissues breaking down and proteins clumping together. It impairs vision and can only be rectified with cataract treatment. The surgery involves removing the patient’s eye’s natural, clouded lens and replacing it with an artificial one. Cataract blindness can be cured with a 10-15 minute procedure. However, to carry out this life changing surgery it is important to have the right equipment. As Dr. Kahsai confirmed, beside the work done by the team, providing the right equipment for proper eye care was another important aid that led to the successful implementation of the program. In this connection, director of the HCP, Dr. Reeta Gurung, said, ‘Fred Hollows Intraocular Lens Laboratories’ that were set up in Eritrea and Nepal in the same period are supplying the market with lens at a fair price.

Through the HCP outreach program, many Eritrean patients were able to get their sight back. At the hospital people were expressing their joy thanking the doctors and nurses. Bruk Mulugeta, eight, is one of the youngest patients who underwent the surgery. Although cataract usually affects people in their 70s, it can occur at any age. Bruk is a 2nd grade student and has been facing difficulties while learning at school until his teachers pointed out his problem to his parents. But when examined he was diagnosed with cataract and went on for surgery. When asked after surgery, Bruk said with a smile, “I can see” nodding his head up and down.

Mrs. Letu Fseha, who was having difficulties taking care of her family due to the problem of cataract on her right eye, said she had undergone the same operation in 2010 on her left eye and was doing fine until her right eye got infected and added, “But now, I am able to see clearly through both my eyes.” Similarly, Mr. Alem Fseha gave his gratitude to the surgeons for helping him to get a clear vision. He said, “Thank you all, because of you, I’ll be able to do my job without any problem.”

Regarding the success of the program, Mr. Brendan Callahan, program manager of HCP, said that the efficient preparation in Eritrea has played great role in the success of the program. When Asked if there were any challenges in their work, Mr. Callahan said, “Everything has been really smooth. The hospital has been so welcoming and the doctors have been helpful. From the moment we arrived we got lots of support. The Eritrean team has been incredibly cooperative, working for long hours with us, helping us do lots of surgeries.” Mr. Callahan also appreciated the hospitality they have received during their stay in Eritrea.

In five days of intensive work the HCP team performed 1,333 surgeries in Asmara. The patients who underwent the successful operation have been given advice on how to take their medicine. Currently, the patients are being followed up at their local health centers. Most of all, the outreach has brought together ophthalmic team from the U.S, Ethiopia, Nepal and Eritrea, all focused on curing blindness by delivering high-quality eye care.

Worldwide about 39 million people are half-blind from treatable cataracts while another 246 million people struggle with low vision. Hence, projects such as that of HCP are essential in changing the lives of many people.