In the remote Ugandan village of Bwindi, children are suffering tragic consequences because of a lack of even the most basic eye care services.
Alice, 13, was brought into hospital in Bwindi nursing a withered left arm. She had been sweeping the path outside her home, one of many chores she has to carry out every day, when she flicked away a black twig with her broom.
Except it wasn’t a twig. It was a poisonous black snake. Its savage bite left her unconscious and fighting for her life for five days.
She survived, but her arm will be useless for the rest of her life. Sadly, her story, and many like it, are all too common in this remote part of Uganda. You see,
Alice is extremely short-sighted. If she was in the UK, she would have been wearing prescription glasses from a very young age. But here, the nearest eye clinic is 150 miles away and her poor eyesight went undiagnosed until tragedy struck.
When she was finally brought to our clinic, she mentioned her blurry vision. A sight test confirmed her myopia and, with glasses, she can now see clearly. If only we had been able to help her earlier.
I fell in love with Uganda when I first worked there 10 years ago and I am a committed volunteer for the charity REACHbwindi. I am a British optometrist, working at a practice in Hampshire. The contrast with this remote part of Uganda could not be more stark.
The village of Bwindi lies on the edge of Uganda's impenetrable rain forest, home to endangered mountain gorillas and the indigenous Batwa pygmy tribe. There is one hospital, the Bwindi Community Hospital (BCH), serving 100,000 people in an area the size of Surrey. It provides medical services including obstetrics, HIV, malaria, and malnutrition – but not ophthalmology. Community eye-care services are several days’ travel from here and effectively inaccessible for all but a tiny handful.
Life in Bwindi is similar to life in many other rural areas of Uganda … really tough. Ensuring there is enough food on the table is the priority for most families. Losing your eyesight, or even struggling with short-sightedness, can be a financial and social catastrophe.
Around 80% of sight loss in Uganda is caused by conditions that are totally treatable, such as cataract and uncorrected short or long sightedness. It’s hard for us to imagine not having access to a pair of glasses but in Uganda this is one of the leading causes of ‘blindness’. Many children who cannot see the blackboard are so disadvantaged they opt not to go to school. They become victims of their poor sight, as their education and social well-being suffers.
A simple pair of spectacles is a quick and cost-effective remedy – and it can be life-changing.
The need for eye-care services in Uganda is desperate. Access to trained professionals is extremely limited. In fact, there are only 37 qualified ophthalmologists in the whole country, whose population is 41 million.
However, a new tier of specialist eye nurses is now emerging and helping to address the problem of community eye-care. They are trained to treat simple eye conditions, assess sight for glasses and even carry out minor eye surgery.
Plans are already underway to help Bwindi Community Hospital (BCH) introduce a sustainable eye-care service, so that people will not lose their sight needlessly. By the end of 2020, the aim is to build a permanent eye clinic at the hospital.
Building work has started and donated equipment is ready to put to use. But it now needs a modest philanthropic investment to ensure the work can be completed and the clinic fully staffed.
Treating eye injuries and infections early on is crucial as it increases the chances of making a full and speedy recovery. While I was there recently, we learnt that 8-year-old Sadress had been playing with a friend when she ran into a tree branch which hit her right eye. It became sore. She was taken to BCH, but at that time there was no equipment to examine her eye and no one qualified to treat her.
Two months later, with an infected ulcerated eye, she was struggling to even open it. We immediately recognised it was extremely serious and paid for her to be taken to the nearest eye hospital, five hours away in Mbarara.
Unfortunately, her eye was now so severely infected, it was beyond treatment and needed to be removed. With very heavy hearts, we paid the £140 fee for her eye to be removed. Our feelings of hopelessness were further compounded when we later received a letter from Sadress’s mother thanking us for our help. From our perspective, it was an avoidable tragedy, which deeply upset us all.
Action for Bwindi
BCH is the perfect platform from which a sustainable eye-care service can be built. Empowering and employing local people is the key to success. As ophthalmologists are so scarce, when funds are available the aim is to immediately employ one of the country's 250 ophthalmic nurses who can diagnose, treat and refract patients. A second nurse will be sponsored to study for a post-graduate Diploma in Ophthalmology.
BCH even runs an innovative health insurance scheme that ensures even the poorest families can afford to attend.
Staff and volunteers at the hospital are doing all they can to get the eye clinic built and up and running. They can’t complete it without help from generous donors, so please consider making a donation if you can.
Sight really DOES matter but things are certainly looking brighter for the people of Bwindi.
Please donate to this project: www.reachbwindi.com/sight4bwindi