Going blind

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 4.5 million people worldwide are blind because of primary glaucoma, an eye disease. In Ghana, some 700,000 people are affected. The situation is especially grim because there are fewer than 50 ophthalmologists in the country and because many people cannot afford the surgical intervention needed.

“I was diagnosed with glaucoma four or five month ago,” Issah Salamatu, a patient at the eye clinic of the Tamale teaching hospital says. She has tunnel vision and can only see what she is looking at directly, but nothing on the sides.  

The 58-year old woman is one of 700,000 persons suffering the condition, according to the Glaucoma Association of Ghana. Almost three percent of Ghanaians are affected by glaucoma, and that is one of the highest rates internationally, the organisations reports.

Dr Gilbert Batieka Bonsaana has been offering free screenings to detect glaucoma since 2015. He is an ophthalmologist at the hospital in Tamale. Up to 70 people visit the eye clinic every day.

Open-angle glaucoma is the most common form. The loss of vision is slow, beginning with the peripheral or side vision, and often goes undetected for a long time. The only way to know for sure is to get tested at an eye clinic. “Vision lost cannot be regained, and glaucoma can cause blindness if it is left untreated,” says Dr Bonsaana.

Despite the high number of patients in Ghana, awareness is low. Mohammed Jamal, a resident of Tamale, says that he never had an eye check-up, “because I have never experienced any difference in my sight.” But glaucoma has virtually no symptoms and it usually doesn’t hurt if your eye pressure increases.

Adongo Isaac lost his sight due to glaucoma more than a decade ago – and he lost his job as well. “It is a terrible thing for me. I was a driver, but I contracted glaucoma and got blind,” he recounts. Now he is weaving doormats to make a living.

Stigma is another problem. Patients need support from family and friends. They tend to be shunned, however, because people think that the patients are cursed.
Adamu Ama is a patient who had developed glaucoma in her right eye. After a successful cataract surgery for pupillary block glaucoma, she is now doing well. Not everyone who needs surgery gets it, however. There are too few competent eye doctors in Ghana, and many people cannot afford the costs.

Maxwell Suuk is a journalist and lives in Northern Ghana.

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