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Eye care

Helping Zambians to see

by Derrick Silimina


Until recently, Maureen Mumba suffered from cataracts, a blurring of the lens of the eyes which, if left untreated, can cause total blindness. Mumba, a 55 year old subsistence farmer in southern Zambia, had the disease for five years. Her increasingly cloudy vision slowed her farming work, threatening her household’s food supply.

She is one of the lucky ones, however. Thanks to a Chinese programme offering free cataract surgery, Mumba received an operation that removed her cataracts. “I am so excited that my sight is fully restored,” she says.

Mumba is one of a small but growing number of Zambians benefitting from a push to fight cataracts and other eye diseases. The campaign is supported by donations from international NGOs, private health-care providers and foreign governments, particularly the Chinese government.

Cataracts are a major cause of blindness in Zambia, particularly among the elderly. About 12 million people worldwide are blind because of cataracts, says Sightsavers, a global health-care organisation that supported 355,000 cataracts operations worldwide in 2018.

In Zambia, about 75,000 people are blind because of cataracts, according to See International, a US-based eye care provider, citing Zambian Ministry of Health data. Overall, it says, “treatable or preventable conditions account for approximately 80% of blindness cases in Zambia.”

In addition to its human cost, blindness takes a tremendous economic toll on Zambia, with an estimated total annual loss of $ 56 million. Zambians have poor access to eye care, with only 15 ophthalmologists serving over 14 million residents, See International says.

Part of the problem is lack of public information. According to Eye for Zambia, a Dutch organisation that supports eye care in Zambia, 43% of affected people are unaware of possible treatment. The country also lacks equipment and training for eye care, and high transport costs impede access to the few available eye care facilities.

The Chinese government is at the forefront of efforts to help. It funded a programme called “Bright Journey” that provides free cataract surgery in Lusaka and the southern provinces. So far, China has sent 21 medical teams to Zambia, providing diagnosis and treatment of common eye diseases as well as treatment of difficult cases.

The teams also train local doctors and provide materials and equipment. “As long as cataracts affect daily life and work, surgery can be considered,” says Dr. Huang Shunde, director of the “Bright Journey” programme.

The surgeons use a method called phacoemulsification and intraocular lens implantation. “In this surgery, the nucleus of lens is crushed and sucked out by ultrasound, and a foldable intraocular lens is implanted at the same time, so that the object is refocused on the retina, and the patient will be able to gain vision after the operation,” Dr. Shunde says. One of the patients treated is Bright Nkamba, a 48 year old bus driver from Lusaka. “My eyesight is now back to normal,” he says.” I am so grateful that this operation was a success.”

The Zambian government expressed thanks for the Chinese support. “It is with a deep sense of gratitude that I recognise the government of China’s dedication to the provision of quality health services to Zambia,” says Kennedy Malama, permanent secretary at the Zambian Health Ministry.

Derrick Silimina is a freelance journalist based in Lusaka. He focuses on Zambian agriculture and sustainability issues.