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HomemistoryThe Horn of Africa

The Horn of Africa

As a result of severe drought, the United Nationshas declared a famine in Ethiopia, as well as other regions in the Horn of Africa. One Melbourne based eye care group is doing everything it can to respond to the extreme needs of the region’s people.

Eyes for Africa completed its fifth successful trip to Ethiopia in June, restoring sight to the “poorest poor” in the remote southern town of Mizan Teferi.

Mizan Teferi is a remote town in southern Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa. The most populous landlocked country in the world, Ethiopia has one of the fastest growing economies in the world, yet the majority of its 82 million residents suffer from abject poverty, malnutrition and poor sanitation.

For Melbourne Orthoptist Elizabeth Glatz, the broad smile on the face ofthe Ethiopian man, who found himself able to see and count her fingers, is a memory that will stay with her for the rest of her life.
“This patient was led in by his friend or brother. He had bilateral cataracts and was blind. He spoke a dialect, not the national language, so we couldn’t really communicate with him.

We go where no-one else wants to go…

“He came from a really long way. He had no shoes. He just wasn’t engaging with anyone – head down… after the first surgery… there was still not much change. But after surgery on the second eye, he started looking around and smiling.”

Ms. Glatz said she was holding up her fingers, asking him to count them, so she could check his vision.

“The further I moved away from him so he could count my fingers, the bigger his smile got and then he just started laughing… it was a special moment, one that’s going to stick in my mind forever.”

Volunteer Team

Ms. Glatz was one of a team of volunteers from the Eyes for Africa Charitable Foundation – a not-for-profit, non-government, non-denominational organisation headed by Melbourne Ophthalmic Nurse, Julie Tyers. Since its inception in March 2007, teams of self-funded volunteers from Australia and the U.S., assisted by local African staff, have made five trips to rural Ethiopia, providing more than 900 sight-restoring cataract operations to people living in poverty.

Ms. Tyers said a team of six Australian volunteers went on the latest trip – including herself and Ms. Glatz, and photographer Ellen Smith, who took the photograph in this article. Two American volunteers and three Ethiopian completed the team which performed 65 cataract operations – many on people blinded by bilateral cataracts – and other eye surgeries, for a total of 92 operations in June this year.

Border Delays

Ms. Tyers said the Eyes for Africa team had planned a three week mission, but operating time was reduced to just eight days when – despite extensive planning and communication with Ethiopian authorities – crucial medical supplies failed to clear Ethiopian customs.

“It was just so frustrating. It is hard to understand just how illogical this was. The most distressing part for us was that we knew there were 300 people waiting for us in Mizan Teferi, wanting our help to restore their sight.”

Ms. Tyers said in the end, Eyes for Africa had to repurchase some supplies and will use the goods delayed in customs on a future trip.

Enormous Need

Ms. Tyers said the Honorary Consol for Ethiopia, who is on the Foundation’s Advisory Committee, has told them that “there are only five charities from Australia operating in Ethiopia, and we are one of them”.

“We go where no-one else wants to go.

“In 2007, it was estimated there were 1.2 million blind people in Ethiopia and only 77 ophthalmologists. There may be more now, but most Ethiopians don’t have access to eye care,” she said.

“It costs us about AUD$50 for a cataract operation, depending on how remote the area is, how much we have donated from companies and how much we need to purchase. The patients we see are not charged – we supply all the food, medications and consumables. We try to keep them in overnight (after a cataract operation) so we are sure we see them again the next day.”

She said Ethiopian Ophthalmologist and humanitarian Dr Abu Beyene, who is part of the Eyes for Africa team, is paid to stay behind for a week after the mission leaves, to ensure follow up problems are addressed.

Changing Lives

Ms. Tyers said one of the patients she most remembers from this trip was a blind man from the capital, Addis Ababa, who had been brought in by his son, aged about eight. The pair had travelled to Mizan Teferi to beg in the streets.

“We did do cataract operations on this man, and we were hoping his son would be freed up to go to school, instead of caring for his father,” Ms. Tyers said.

For Ms. Glatz, it was her first trip to Africa, and an experience she is already planning on repeating in the not-too-distant future.

“As much as I was prepared – mentally prepared – nothing can really prepare you. These are the poorest poor. Some had travelled miles for the surgery.

“I remember one woman collapsing – a local nurse caught her in her arms – she had made such a long journey but didn’t have any food … it’s quite devastating.”

“I’ve told Julie (Tyers) that I’m absolutely on one of the next trips. It has been the best experience of my life, to be honest. Nothing will ever compare to the look on some of the patients’ faces when their sight is restored.

“These people are really dependent on their friends and family. Sometimes they can’t dress or feed themselves. You give them back their sight, but you also give them back their independence. I definitely plan to go back,” Ms. Glatz said.

Eyes for Africa is already planning its next trip to Ethiopia – to the eastern city Harar and, hopefully, Mizan Teferi again. Ms. Tyers says the organisation’s most pressing need is for a Tono-pen, a device used to measure intraocular pressure and a hand-held slit lamp.

Further information on the charitable foundation and how to get involved is available online: www.eyesforafrica.org.