Jo Sheetal-Thethy, Resident Optometrist at Optegra Eye Hospital North London
, travelled to Mekelle School for the Blind in Northern Tigray, Ethiopia with a UK registered charity Sight Aid International (SAI).
The purpose of the two week trip was to screen the visually challenged children and where possible provide glasses, low vision aids, and education on hygiene and cleanliness to prevent further complications.
The school is home to over 96 orphans who have been labelled ‘blind’. It has very poor infrastructure including shaky foundations, rough uneven grounds, no running water and filthy septic tanks. The children live in the utmost of inhumane conditions with dirty bedding, poor sanitation and up to until recently wild animals roaming on the unsecured compound at night.
Initial screening of the children showed that most had very high refractive errors, hence accounting for their poor sight. Unfortunate untreatable blind cases caused by poor nutrition attributing to corneal scars (Vitamin A deficiency), shocking eye infections that had caused the eye ball to waste away and some neurological deficits that had induced squints forcing the child to adopt an abnormal head posture.
Jo says: “I was so disgusted at this heartless treatment of children. It made me, and the members of SAI, so determined to help. Our long term goal is to construct a brand new school and dorms that will be equipped with visual aids; it will allow these children a right to education and decent living conditions. There will be access to drinking water, toilet and shower facilities, clean mattresses and a sterile area where their meals are prepared. Classrooms will be well lit and equipped with low visual aids.
“It’s a long road ahead but knowing that we can provide a better quality of life for these children gives me immense personal and professional satisfaction.
“Optegra have supported me by giving me five days paid leave and a supply of eye drops, which I appreciate.”
SAI has teamed up with SENEthiopia, who are a group of special education needs teachers, and the board of St Vincent’s School for the Blind in Liverpool. They have a 10 year project plan that is currently in stage one – building a fence around the school perimeter to deter wild animals and thieves and constructing new shower/toilet block. St Vincent’s will be equipping the school with non-optical low visual aids and sending out teachers who are specially trained in educating children with visual and other disabilities.
In addition to the construction of the new school, the local hospital is being equipped with drops that can be used to treat inflammatory eye diseases which, if left untreated, can lead to blindness. The teachers and parents of the blind children are also being educated on how to avoid or seek early treatment for trachoma/uveitis. Children who cannot be helped with eye drops/glasses and need more specialist intervention will be sent to specialist ophthalmologists in main cities such as Addis Ababa.
For many African communities who live in remote rural areas, medical help is unreachable. The main cause of blindness in sub-Saharan Africa is uncorrected refractive error where the population becomes presbyopic at the age of 30. This means that because of their exposure to UV light (living close to the equator) and poor nutrition, they lose their ability to focus on close up things. Subsequently, most adults who are breadwinners of the family cannot work as they can’t read, sew or carry out other tasks. In many cases, providing a basic pair of reading glasses will enable most of the working generation, for example teachers, tailors and carpenters, to earn a living and provide for their families.
For more information about Sight Aid International, visit: www.sightaidinternational.org
and SENEthiopia, visit www.sene.org.uk