Report by Pacific Media Centre
The World Health Organisation says three-quarters of all blindness can be prevented or treated, with the Pacific Islands having one of the highest rates of avoidable blindness in the globe. Emma Jones of Asia-Pacific Journalism reports on the Fred Hollows Foundation’s new mobile eye clinic in Fiji.
An 11.5 metre container on wheels, about the same size as a Kiwi holiday caravan, has already changed the lives of more than 3000 Fijians – and it has only been working four months.
Earlier this year the Fred Hollows Foundation shipped its mobile eye clinic to Fiji. With it being the first of its kind in the world, it was an ambitious and risky venture for the charity.
The goal of the clinic is to provide eye assessments and surgery to people in outlying villages who, due to financial or supportive constraints, are unable to make the journey to Suva for treatment.
Executive director Andrew Bell says the foundation purposely embarked on a quiet roll out for the clinic so any kinks could be cleared up and to be sure the project would work.
“We spent a long time researching for the clinic and while we were pretty confident it would work, you always worry you’ve overlooked something, particularly culturally,” he says.
Bell says that for the initial roll out they chose three villages that are within an hour from Suva, so they were close to the capital if they needed any support.
Demand outstrips capacity
“We didn’t advertise so that we didn’t over-promise before we were sure we could deliver, but right from the first day we were flat out with patients – we hoped that would happen, we were pretty certain was going to happen, and now we’ve got proof it’s happening.”
Bell says hearing about long queues of people at the clinic every day is music to his ears.
“We’re at a point now where we can say ‘this thing is working and it’s fabulous’.”
The biggest benefit of having the mobile eye clinic is that it doesn’t take up already stretched local hospital resources, the container is self-contained and it can stay on site for four – six weeks at a time.
The container is able to carry out up to 10 surgeries a day, with the clinic currently averaging 30 per week, on top of that are the diabetes patients who require laser surgery.
The first locals tend to know about the clinic is when the colourful truck pulls into the village, and then it’s up to the bush-telegraph to spread the word, which is how patient Aminasi, found out.
“I was working in the area when I heard from villagers that the mobile eye clinic was doing free eye checks.”
Bell says the main cause of blindness is cataracts: “It happens to everybody and comes with age, but malnutrition and diabetes speed it up.”
“In NZ every person is entitled to one cataract surgery under public health, and because of our access to world class medical eye care these are treated much sooner, when you are still able to see functionally. However in the Pacific, because of the lack of access to medical care, the level of blindness we are seeing is extreme – as in completely blind.”
Bell talks of cataract patient Serafena Underwood who prior surgery was unable to see the nurse’s hand waving right in front of her face, but now she says she can see her grandchildren for the first time and look into her husband’s eyes.
“The best feedback we get from patients is that finally they can go to the toilet themselves unaided – they just want that basic human dignity of going to the bathroom alone, and that’s now been restored by giving their sight back to them.”
Mahmood, a 51-year-old local was spoken to in the queue for the clinic, “I hope to get my eye fixed so I can return to work as a taxi driver.”
Similar is truck driver Kinivuai, who relies on his sight for employment, “I was very happy to have my eye operated on.”
Lead opthamologist on the Mobile Clinic, Dr Harris Ansari, says it’s the smiles, gratitude and prayers that are the biggest rewards.
“One of my patients was brought in by two people for his cataract surgery. When he returned one week after the surgery he drove to the clinic by himself, the feelings are overwhelming.”
Dr Ansari says even though the clinic is mobile and free, the quality of care is not compromised in any way, and is similar to those delivered in a developed country.
“The clinic is equipped with all the state of the art pieces of equipment; it also serves as a training ground for nurses in training from other Pacific Island countries.”
The demand for eyecare services is great throughout the Pacific, but with such high demand in Fiji, Andrew Bell says he can’t see them moving on anytime soon.
“In terms of other Pacific countries, the long term plan is to have a mobile clinic in those, as long as their roads and transport can move it – but what we really need is another clinic.”
“We are constantly innovating, one idea in discussion is a smaller, lighter clinic that can be lifted and dropped into area with poor access, for example Kiribati – it would then be able to be moved with the rising seawaters when needed.”
However additional clinics are only possible through donations which is a constant battle for the foundation who have only been able to attract one corporate sponsor, Specsavers.
“The Pacific Islands are part of our wider community so we need to be looking after them as well as own, but getting a regular stream of funds is hard to achieve.”
“Donors are very much needed, for $25 a month you can restore someone’s sight.”
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Emma Jones is a student journalist on the Postgraduate Diploma in Journalism reporting on the Asia-Pacific journalism course at AUT University.