In the season of giving, I challenge you to consider how you can use your unique eyecare skills to help others.
Throughout the world, 253 million people are blind or visually impaired. Some are vision impaired due to eye disease and some are vision impaired due to lack of access to vision correction – a humble pair of glasses.
As James Muecke, ophthalmologist and founder of Sight For All (SFA), explained, “We know that 36 million are blind and 217 million have low vision. 90 per cent of these people live in developing countries, and sadly, a staggering 80 per cent of their visual impairment is preventable or treatable. Blindness and vision impairment can significantly reduce a person’s quality of life and can lead to early death. In many cultures, these eye conditions can also limit access to education and work, leading to social isolation and poverty.”
This extraordinary need inspired James to start Sight For All (SFA), with a mission to empower communities and deliver comprehensive, evidence-based, high quality eye care by providing research, education, equipment, and health awareness. The ultimate aim is to reduce vision impairment and blindness, which in turn can break the cycle of poverty.
Optometry Giving Sight is committed to a world where avoidable blindness and vision loss due simply to the lack of a pair of eye glasses no longer threaten the quality-of-life and future livelihood of children and adults
Taking a Sustainable Approach
SFA’s strategy to train and equip colleagues in their local communities addresses major causes of blindness, among them glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy, diseases of the cornea and uncorrected refractive error. The organisation uses a sustainable approach to fill the gaps in eye health care in its partner countries. For example, 36 regional eye centres have been established in Myanmar and seven in Laos, allowing eye surgeons to markedly increase the quantity and quality of cataract surgeries they perform in areas where it is very much needed.
Additionally, Myanmar’s first children’s eye specialist, Dr. Than Tun Aung, was trained in Australia. “After Dr. Aung’s return home, the number of essential eye surgeries performed for children in Myanmar was 12 times higher than the year before. He is currently treating 20,000 children every year and is now training his own children’s eye specialists,” James told me.
“This is just an example of the impact Sight For All has, and it is a shining example of collaboration – each year a team of more than 100 ophthalmologists, optometrists, orthoptists, ophthalmic nurses and scientists from Australia and New Zealand donate up to 10,000 hours of their time, goodwill and expertise to Sight For All’s projects in Asia. This voluntary contribution is improving the lives of half a million people annually and its impact is growing every year.”
Aid in Australia
In Australia, cataract is said to be the leading cause of blindness among indigenous Australians, and according to James, due to lack of understanding and awareness, less than 25 per cent of patients that need surgery go through with their sight-restoring operation. In addition to this, diabetes is the fastest growing cause of vision loss in the Aboriginal population. However again, due to lack of awareness, most with diabetes are not adequately screened or treated for its complications that cause blindness. In an attempt to increase awareness, Sight For All has created education videos to make information about these eye diseases more accessible.
Universal Access to Vision
At Optometry Giving Sight (OGS) the focus is on avoidable blindness and vision loss around uncorrected refractive error and this is its unique point of difference.
“Optometry Giving Sight is committed to a world where avoidable blindness and vision loss due simply to the lack of a pair of eye glasses no longer threaten the quality-of-life and future livelihood of children and adults,” said Ron Baroni, Australian Country Manager at OGS. “We aim to deliver universal access to quality vision and eye care services for all those in need.”
Optometry Giving Sight notes that there are 1.1 billion people with vision impairment simply because they can’t access an eye exam and a pair of glasses. The organisation works to fund programs that deliver vision care, train local eye care professionals and develop infrastructure.
Ron described the programs OGS is concentrating on at the moment. “We are delighted to be one of more than 70 partners who are supporting the ‘Our Children’s Vision’ campaign. The goals of the campaign are to ensure that 50 million children and adolescents gain access to vision care services by 2020; to integrate child eye health into existing child and adolescent health and education systems; and to create awareness of the risk of myopia to children’s vision.
“In addition to supporting programs that are directly delivering vision care, we are also supporting nine schools of optometry. These new schools are located in countries that currently do not have optometrists. As the students graduate, we see the significant impact they are having on vision care in their own communities. We estimate that the 383 graduates have already impacted the lives of over 750,000 patients to date.”
Both James and Ron Baroni agree that myopia is a burgeoning public health concern. “We are experiencing epidemic growth in rates of myopia,” Ron told me. “This increase, especially in communities that have challenges to eye care services, can have a significant impact on children’s learning, behavioural issues and an impact on future eye health issues, which translate to diminished quality of life and
a significant impact on society.
James agreed. “High degrees of myopia are in turn leading to a significant increase in the risk of vision impairment and even blindness from pathologic conditions associated with myopia such as retinal detachment, macular degeneration, cataract and glaucoma.
“There are a number of methods of controlling myopia, but it is becoming clear from scientific evidence that excessive time spent indoors is a major risk factor. Encouraging school children to spend more time outdoors can delay the onset and slow the progression of myopia, and so SFA is currently exploring opportunities to promote time outdoors in schools across Australia and Asia.”
The Work of Visionaries
At Sight For All, volunteers are called Visionaries. Specialty contact lens practitioner Jessica Chi, is one of them and she participated in a program to save the sight of babies in Vietnam following the 2011 rubella outbreak.
Congenital rubella syndrome can result in massive health problems, including congenital heart disease and cataract.
Cataract formation at this early age prevents proper visual development, which in turn results in amblyopia and profound sight deprivation. Cataracts must be removed as early as possible for visual development to occur, however once the lenses are removed, the eyes become severely longsighted. Sight for All’s work in Vietnam involved training in congenital cataract surgery and training contact lens practitioners to prescribe contact lenses to infants.
While working as a SFA Visionary, Jessica recalled examining a baby who was unsettled. The crying 10 month old baby boy displayed nystagmus – erratic eye movements likely to be caused by a complete inability to fixate due to poor vision. She prescribed aphakic customised baby rigid gas permeable contact lenses for his eyes and said the change she witnessed was remarkable.
The baby stilled and he stopped making unsettled sounds. His nystagmus slowed, and he lay there, staring at the world he could now see, in absolute awe. A beautiful story.
There is a saying, ‘Your greatness is not about what you have, it’s about what you give.’ We are so fortunate, as eye care practitioners, to live and practice where health care is readily accessible.
Let’s share that greatness and remember to give, and give generously, with our hands, our hearts, our minds… and to our full capacity.
Margaret Lam is an optometrist in theeyecarecompany practices in greater Sydney and Sydney CBD and an Adjunct Senior Lecturer at the School of Optometry and Vision Science at UNSW. She also works as the Head of Optometry Services for George and Matilda Eyecare. Margaret practises full scope optometry, but with a passionate interest in contact lenses,retail aspects of optometry and successful patient communication and management. She has extensive experience in specialty contact lens fitting in corneal ectasia, keratoconus and orthokeratology and is a past recipient of the Neville Fulthorpe Award for Clinical Excellence.
Margaret writes ‘mipatient’ on alternate months with Jessica Chi.