Sri Lanka

Restoring 20/20 vision in tsunami-devastated Sri Lanka

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News and Press Release
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Story and photos by Byron Pakula

The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami took with it far more than houses, schools, hospitals, and lives. Some of the most vulnerable people in Sri Lanka lost one of their most valuable assets: their sight.

Thirty-seven-year-old dressmaker Jasintha Fernando started having difficulties with her vision when working abroad. On returning home she received spectacles from the Colombo Eye Hospital. After the tsunami, her glasses were nowhere to be found.

Not only did some people lose their sight when the waves crashed ashore, thousands of people like Jasintha Fernando lost their spectacles and were suddenly sightless in unfamiliar surroundings. Many more had existing sight problems they could not afford to mend.

Mobile eye care clinics

Australian Red Cross and the International Organisation for Migration are acting to ease the trauma of visual impairment by bringing optometric and ophthalmologic care services via mobile eye care clinics to six tsunami-affected districts in the South and East of Sri Lanka.

The $3 million project takes mobile eye clinics to schools, temples, and other easily accessible locations, setting up for a period of 7-10 days in each district. A month prior to the clinics auto-rickshaws with microphones, banners and notices drive around the streets to alert tsunami victims and poorer members of the community to the upcoming free clinics.

The clinics are run by professionally trained optometrists who can identify sight problems, provide treatment for eye infections, distribute spectacles, or provide referrals to district hospitals for further assistance such as cataract operations.

Thousands of people are benefiting

The project will see an estimated 100,000 people will undertake ophthalmic screening, 75,000 people will receive spectacles, and possibly more than 7,000 will be referred for cataract surgery. The project is now half way through -- at the end of August, 50,000 people had been screened, and 40,000 spectacles have been distributed. Approximately 3,500 people have been referred for cataract operations with over 500 already seen by an eye surgeon.

Through the success of the first camps in Kalutara and Matara, the Ministry of Health is also using the clinics as an opportunity to provide a range of services, such as health education campaigns for HIV/Aids, nutrition programs, and even dental services.

While Jasintha Fernando is delighted that she has received replacement spectacles through the program, and has been able to resume her dressmaking work, 17-year-old Shasikala Dilrukshi has also benefited, and is thrilled with her new specs. 'I get teary eyes when I read,' she says. 'When I'm at school I can't even see the blackboard properly. I have to ask my friend for the notes because I can't see the black board. I was using my sister's spectacles when she was not using them, and it was difficult for my family to afford to by glasses for me. Now, I can see clearly! It is a great help for my education!'

Providing long-term solutions

Providing immediate solutions is only one aspect, as it is also important to address the long-term sustainability of the health system to meet the eye care needs of people in Sri Lanka. Over 230 specialist eye care nurses and occupational therapists have received training, and a further 200 primary eye care workers and medical officers in the six districts will be trained. The Eye Care Units in the district hospitals will receive basic medical equipment and supplies for diagnosis and care of eye problems, and the community will receive health education on major causes and prevention of visual impairment. This will ensure a future of good vision in Sri Lanka.