Vision Aid Overseas (VAO)
10 February 2013
On 8th February 2013, Rachel Hiscox & I begun our 7000 mile journey to Lusaka, Zambia. We were part of a team of 4 other
qualified optometrists joining a Vision Aid Overseas (VAO) project where we were teaching the very first Optometry
undergraduate students at Chainama College of Health Sciences, Lusaka.
Neither of us had been to Africa and we had only met our team leader, Cardiff optometry alumnus Karen Sparrow, for briefing and training once about a month
before our departure!
The 13 students we were teaching were in their final year of the optometry
diploma which is a 3 year course. VAO had previously sent 2 teams to deliver practical training and we were to deliver the final block of training. We quickly put them through their paces. On the first day, they faced practical assessments and then begun 9 days of lectures and testing real patients that presented to the purpose-built teaching centre, funded by Sightsavers and Specsavers.
On two of our teaching days we took the students to New Soweto market, to test the eyes of people who worked in the market and locals. On the first day, before the day had begun, we found over 50 patients queuing up for eye exams. By the end of the day, the students had examined almost 150 patients. Much the same occurred on our second visit to the market.
The most common eye problem we saw was the need for glasses. In
children, this can make the difference between receiving education or being kicked out of school for “being disruptive”. For adults, this can mean the difference between staying in employment or no longer being able to do their job, just because they need a pair of
reading glasses. Eye diseases related to UV in the sun was incredibly common – we saw many cases of cataract and pterygium.
Lusaka has a large community of children and adults with albinism. The students had the chance to test the eyes of these people who are often ostracised in the community, as they look so different to their friends and family. Most were greatly helped with a simple pair of
sunglasses, spectacles and a hat. The students also had the chance to dispense low vision aids to the albinos.
Zambia is such a beautiful country. The people are so friendly and welcoming. Poverty is very much present in the country. 68% live below the poverty line (defined by the World Bank as US$1.25 per day) and only 10% of the population have access to a toilet. During our first week on project, we tested two highly short-sighted siblings, -17D and -12D (that’s very short-sighted for those who are not familiar with the numbers!). It only became apparent when they returned for further investigations a few days later that they had to walk 3 hours each way to come to the clinic for their first ever eye checks. Thankfully with the 13 students due to graduate this July, this will be the beginning of sustainable eyecare in Zambia. It was a real pleasure to teach these enthusiastic students who will make a great impact in their communities.
But it wasn’t all work and no play. We were fortunate to be able to go on safari and see the majestic Victoria Falls during our weekends off which were experiences we will never forget.