A site for sore eyes

All eyes are on Inkosi Albert Luthuli Central Hospital (IALCH) in Durban for the official opening of the new Paediatric Eye Care Centre thanks to a three-year partnership between the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) Department of Health and international sight-saving organisation ORBIS.

Deputy Minister of Public Works Henrietta Bogopane-Zulu (who is visually impaired) and Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo, MEC for Health in KZN, will cut the ribbon at the state-of-the-art facility on Friday 21 October. “According to the World Health Organisation, up to 60% of infants die within two years of becoming blind. By working with ORBIS to tackle childhood blindness we will be saving lives as well as sight,” he says.

The ORBIS Paediatric Eye Care Centre at IALCH offers specialised treatment and surgery for blinding conditions that are common in South Africa, such as paediatric congenital cataract, glaucoma, retinoblastoma and uncorrected refractive error. It will serve 3.5 million children in KZN. “Children’s eyes differ significantly from adults and require specialised procedures, equipment and follow-up. Early intervention is absolutely crucial. This Centre has been equipped to the best international standards so that we can treat prevalent eye problems, prevent children from going blind and restore their sight,” said Dr Dharmesh Parbhoo, the paediatric ophthalmologist who heads up the Centre’s team.

“Sub-Saharan Africa is a priority region for ORBIS as it carries the heaviest burden of blindness globally, with 23% of the world’s blind,” said Lene Øverland, Director of Programme for ORBIS Europe, Middle East and Africa. “In about half of cases paediatric blindness could be prevented if access to appropriate medical facilities were available at the right time. We therefore made a commitment in May this year to develop an additional ten paediatric eye care centres in sub-Saharan Africa by 2021. This world-class centre at IALCH is the second of these ten; it marks a massive step forward in alleviating avoidable blindness.”

The ORBIS Paediatric Eye Care Centre is at the core of a three-year strategy to improve children’s eye health in KwaZulu-Natal. Strengthening the referral network, training healthcare workers at primary, secondary and tertiary levels and improving awareness amongst parents and care-givers are other elements of the comprehensive plan. In South Africa, currently only the Western Cape has specialised eye care services for children within the Government health sector, so the IALCH centre is a significant leap forward for child eye health in the country.

ORBIS’s support includes the provision of surgical and diagnostic equipment, training of medical staff, helping to develop the referral network to ensure children in need are quickly identified and given appropriate care, and creating a child-friendly, relaxed environment at the Paediatric Eye Care Centre so patients and parents can feel as comfortable as possible. ORBIS has committed R 2,912,140 over three years to the new Centre. ORBIS secured the first year of funding at a gala dinner held in London to honour one of ORBIS’s founding trustees, Tom Knight. In addition to providing space for the Centre, the KZN Department of Health is covering the salaries for all staff within the paediatric team (ophthalmologists, ophthalmic nurses, a clerk, optometrist and anesthetist) as well as the high-quality surgical equipment that already exists in the hospital.

Far from being a luxury, experts agree that paediatric eye care gives a significant return to society; childhood blindness is estimated to account for a third of the total economic cost of blindness. “Restoring a child’s sight gives one of the best returns on medical investment,” said Øverland. “More importantly it gives a child the chance at having an independent life.”

To find out more about ORBIS visit www.orbis.org.za.

(Cathy Williams, Paula Wilson Media Consulting (PWMC), October 2011)

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