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Flight for sore eyes

Posted 12 December 2017 · Add Comment

It's not rare to spot an MD-10 aircraft in African skies but there is one unique jet, owned by Orbis that is saving the sight of thousands and offering life-changing training in eye care. Marcelle Nethersole reports.

From the outside, there is nothing too unusual about this particular MD-10 aircraft other than the branding.
Inside, however, is a different story, as it contains a state-of-the-art operating theatre that has saved the sight of thousands of people in Africa and around the world.
The world’s only flying eye hospital belongs to leading eye charity Orbis, and it is celebrating delivering 10 million treatments around the globe in a single year.
“This is no normal aircraft; it plays a vital role in the fight against avoidable blindness,” explained Natasha Lee, senior communications officer.
“There are 285 million people in the world who are blind or visually impaired and Orbis discovered that 80% of these people suffer unnecessarily from conditions that are preventable or treatable, including cataracts, glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration.
“Around 90% of the world’s visually impaired people live in developing countries where eye care is scarce. Put simply, this aircraft changes lives.”
Orbis is the result of an alliance forged between the medical and aviation industries. In the 1970s, leaders of these two industries came together to create the plan that led to the charity’s foundation.
In June 2016, Orbis launched its third next-generation flying eye hospital. The converted MD-10 was donated by Fed-Ex and now houses an operating theatre equipped with audio-visual technology that transmits live 3D surgeries to students in classrooms at partner hospitals, a classroom for 46 people, a laser treatment room, a sterilisation room, and a pre and post-op recovery room.
Donations are relied upon for the charity to work and that includes for the aircraft. The company has received many donations from companies happy to help fit out and provide for the aircraft. These include Botany Weaving supplying the aircraft carpet, as well as medical companies providing all the essential surgical equipment needed in its theatre and laser rooms, and training companies kitting out the classrooms.
The aircraft enables a team of the world’s most highly regarded ophthalmic experts to train local medical professionals.
“We are also able to strengthen and improve eye health systems by partnering with local hospitals, public health agencies, NGOs and governments,” added Lee.
What makes Orbis extra special is its staff, all of whom take the time out from their daily jobs.
“Orbis retains a dedicated global network of medical professionals, known as volunteer faculty, who provide ophthalmic education and instruction to increase our partners’ skills, services, and the quality of patient care,” said Lee.
“Most Orbis medical volunteer opportunities are short-term, averaging one to two weeks. All volunteers are matched in accordance to requested subspecialty skill areas. Typical activities include hands-on training, surgical demonstration, diagnostic consultation and lectures.”
The pilots also volunteer from Fed-Ex.
Africa is a continent on which Orbis particularly focuses and, in 1999, it set up its first country office in Ethiopia – now its longest-established programme.
“Team Orbis has worked hard in Ethiopia to eliminate the painful blinding condition trachoma. We were the first charity in the country to implement the World Health Organisation ‘SAFE’ strategy, which tackles trachoma through surgery, antibiotics, face washing and environmental changes,” explained Lee.
“Rural populations face numerous challenges when trying to access healthcare. As well as the majority of health services being located in urban areas, there are often very few qualified medical professionals on hand and it can be very difficult to secure transport.”
Orbis tackles this by training local people – ranging from community health workers to teachers, and traditional healers – in how to screen for eye conditions, apply basic treatments and make referrals in serious cases.
An example comes from one woman called Tsehay, who was trained by Orbis to become an integrated eye care worker. She works at the Zada Health Centre in the rural area of Dita Woreda in the highlands of Ethiopia.
“One day I met a 15-year-old boy who was suffering from trichiasis as a result of repeated infection from trachoma,” said Tsehay. “He was a weaver, but the pain from his eyelashes rubbing his eye was so bad it meant he was unable to work. I managed to persuade him to come to Zada, where I was able to perform surgery and correct it. I felt happy that I could help him.”
In 2015, Orbis distributed more than 3.4 million doses of Zithromax – the antibiotic to treat blinding trachoma – and screened and examined more than 500,000 people living in rural areas.
“Training is paramount in the fight to save sight in developing countries,” said Lee. “We conduct our training programmes on board our Flying Eye Hospital by collaborating with local hospitals and through Cybersight – our online telehealth portal. The specialist areas we cover include paediatric eye care, cataract, glaucoma, retina, oculoplastics, and diabetic retinopathy.
“In 2015, we supported 21,469 training sessions for doctors, nurses, community health workers and others.”
Zambia is another country benefitting from the Orbis programme.
After developing a partnership with the Zambian Ministry of Health and Kitwe Central Hospital, the Flying Eye Hospital conducted a training programme in the country in 2012.
Dr Larry Benjamin is a consultant ophthalmic surgeon at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in the UK. He has been involved in Orbis since 2004, both as a medical volunteer and as a trustee.
He has regularly visited the Kitwe Eye Annexe – Zambia’s first dedicated children’s eye centre – in order to develop the skills of the country’s first paediatric ophthalmologist, Dr Chileshe Mboni.
Benjamin said: “We’ll operate on around 20 children with me doing some and Dr Mboni performing some. As a specialist in cataract surgery in the UK, I have done my fair share of cataract operations, and this helps me to impart the tricks of the trade. The aim is to initiate a cascade process. As Dr Mboni gets more confident, he passes on his skills to other local doctors.”
Dr Mboni helped save the sight of one young girl called Racheal. Her mother, Verah, noticed there was something wrong with Racheal’s eyes just after she was born.
“I would move my hands in front of her face but she wouldn’t react,” said Verah.
She cycled 60kms with Racheal to get her checked out at an eye screening, where she was diagnosed with cataracts. They then travelled more than 500kms by bus to Kitwe Eye Annexe for surgery, performed by Dr Mboni.
Following her operation it was clear Racheal could see again.
“She said hello to both me and Dr Mboni,” said Verah.
All she needed from then, was a pair of glasses.
Today, the centre is famous across Zambia and requires more than just one person at its helm. Orbis is now supporting the training of a second paediatric ophthalmologist, except this time it will be Dr Mboni delivering the training. Dr Lillian Musonda will qualify this year.
Orbis Flying Eye Hospital currently operates 40 long-term programmes in countries including, Ghana, India, Mongolia, Indonesia and Vietnam.
“The new Flying Eye Hospital recently completed its first programme in Shenyang, China, where 24 patients were treated providing 18 local doctors with hands-on surgical training,” said Lee.
Since the first Flying Eye Hospital took to the skies in 1982, both the plane and Orbis’ mission have evolved.
Lee said: The Flying Eye Hospital has often been the catalyst that has either enabled us to establish or expand our long-term country programmes. Our programmes in Africa are a great example of this.”
In 2017, The Flying Eye Hospital will be continuing its good work in Cameroon, Vietnam, and Bangladesh.

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