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Future is bright for eye health in Vanuatu

Future is bright for eye health in Vanuatu

After five years of training and outreach work in the far-flung provinces of Vanuatu, The Fred Hollows Foundation (NZ) officially handed over a fully functional national eye health programme to the country’s Ministry of Heath today in Port Vila.

“It is so unusual for development programmes to achieve everything they set out to, in the timeframe first envisaged. Yet that is exactly what has been achieved with Dr John Szetu’s leadership. Never underestimate the power of one, or the strength of a good team,” said Ms Carmel Williams, executive director of The Fred Hollows Foundation (NZ), at the handover ceremony in Port Vila, capital of the south Pacific archipelago.

Solomon Islands ophthalmologist (eye doctor) Dr John Szetu established the national eye health programme for Vanuatu in 2000, before which there was no formal eye health plan in the country. When he returns home in mid-December he leaves a qualified ni-Vanuatu eye doctor, Johnson Kasso, and 11 trained eye nurse practitioners stationed across the provinces – more than planned – and there is one more eye clinic than initially planned.

”Our Foundation is honoured to have Dr Szetu working with us, and the people of Vanuatu are the real winners from his dedication. The Fred Hollows Foundation (NZ) is so proud of this programme,” she said.

“Under Dr Szetu’s leadership, a strong team of eye health practitioners is working to reduce the number of ni-Vanuatu suffering needlessly from blindness,” said Ms Williams. On behalf of The Fred Hollows Foundation (NZ) board of management and programme staff Ms Williams presented Dr Szetu with New Zealand pounamu (greenstone) as thanks for his advocacy and tireless work in negotiating the programme through the Ministry of Health.

Early in the new year Dr Szetu is returning home to head up the Pacific Eye Institute where, with funding from The Fred Hollows Foundation (NZ), he will train doctors and nurses from around the Pacific and oversee the construction of a new building to house the Institute. The aim of the institute is to teach Pacific eye doctors and nurses, in Pacific conditions, and keep graduates in the region by negotiating with governments to ensure they are recognised for their specialist training. The courses at the Pacific Eye Institute are open to all Pacific doctors, nurses and technicians with an interest in pursuing eye health in their communities.

The Vanuatu team is now led by Dr Johnson Kasso, who in 2004 completed his Diploma in Ophthalmology at the UPNG School of Medicine with funding from NZAID under the Small Projects Scheme.

“We will have to keep up the quality of service, look after the legacy that Dr Szetu has handed over and continue to advocate for good working conditions and pay for the eye nurse practitioners,” said Dr Kasso.

Over the past five years, the national eye health team has reduced the backlog of needless blindness by conducting around 10 outreach tours and 300 cataract surgeries a year. The team has conducted more than 25,000 consultations, and operated on or restored the vision of more than 3,000 people in Vanuatu since the programme began in 2000. Dr Kasso intends to continue this practice, scheduling between six and nine outreach tours a year, conducting cataract and other surgery in remote areas including South-West Malekula, Erromango and Paama.

An estimated 80,000 people across the Pacific are blind, and up to 250,000 suffer significant vision loss, mostly due to cataracts that can be repaired by a 20-minute operation that replaces the cloudy natural lens with a plastic lens.

Fortunately, since up to 80 percent of visual impairment is avoidable or treatable, the number of people suffering from blindness can be reduced with sufficient, appropriately trained personnel and resources.

The Fred Hollows Foundation (NZ) estimates that at least 75 eye doctors are needed to provide appropriate ophthalmic services to the people of the Pacific. Presently there are only 11 Pacific doctors with ophthalmology training. Around 300 eye nurses or technicians are needed, based on a ratio of four eye nurses to one eye doctor, but fewer than 60 nurses have any eye care training, and only about half this number continue to work in eye care after their training.

To donate to help The Fred Hollows Foundation (NZ) build the Pacific Eye Institute call the donation line on 0800 227 229 or mail to Private Bag 56 908 Auckland.

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