Blind World Magazine

ORBIS brings sight to blind.

December 22, 2005.
Viet Nam News Agency, Vietnam.

PHU THO - Duong Thi Be spent years groping in the dark when cooking for herself. Unable to see, Be, a mother of two war martyrs, sometimes had to eat rice mixed with ash and rice husks. Fortunately, sympathetic neighbours often came to her house to help her wash clothes and do other chores.

Be used to think she would die blind, so it was a great surprise to the 88-year-old when she became involved in a project aimed at restoring the sight of the vision-impaired.

Sponsored by an American non-governmental organisation, the Orbis project has provided eye surgery for more than 4,000 people suffering from cataracts in the northern province of Phu Tho. Under the project, another 5,200 people with eye problems such as pterygium and trichiasis have also undergone operations.

Phu Tho's population of 1.3 million people includes almost 7,000 people aged above 50 who are blind, according to a survey conducted by the Viet Nam National Institute of Ophthalmology in 2000. All are affected by cataracts.

The survey revealed poor awareness among local people about the possibility of curing eye diseases, a factor identified as the main obstacle in the prevention protection of blindness.

Some, like 85-year-old Ti, were resigned to their disability.

"I thought blindness was an unavoidable disease that old people like me get," Ti said.

Now Ti's wish of being able to see her husband and children before dying has been granted.

The project included the training of 3,000 health workers at a grassroots level. Since 2000, the US$ 830,000 project has worked on developing comprehensive eye care services in Phu Tho Province at a time when money spent on blindness prevention across the nation has been limited.

The National Institute of Ophthalmology provides about VND200 million a year to fight blindness in Viet Nam, where there are about 500,000 blind people, many of whom have cataracts.

Sacrificing salaries

Before the project began, Phu Tho Province only had one eye doctor who performed eye surgery on 100 cataract patients each year.

It was a difficult situation, especially as the surgeon had to operate on complicated cases. As a result, the quality of surgery was not high.

With an aim of addressing that problem, the project has helped train 18 eye doctors to conduct surgery on cataract patients, bringing surgery capacity to 1,000 cases a year.

However, an increase in the number of surgery cases does not mean higher wages for surgeons as a large amount of project funds are allotted to help poor people get eye operations for free. This means a small sum of money is left to pay surgeons.

Dr Vu Thanh Hai, head of the Social Disease Prevention and Treatment Centre's Ophthalmology unit, said he and other surgeons have had to spend most of their pocket money on accommodation and petrol fees.

Once the only cataract surgeon in Phu Tho Province, Hai remains a key member of the surgical team and receives about VND1 million a month for a heavy workload.

Under the project, a number of surgeons like Hai are also responsible for travelling to clinics in different districts to provide eye surgery to people who find it hard to leave their community.

Yet, low payment does not dampen the spirits of Hai and other surgeons.

"We are happy because we are able to contribute to fighting against blindness in our homeland," Hai said. - VNS

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