The second day of the ORBIS VISION 2020 conference in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania was a success. Today, the discussion focused on public health initiatives, covering topics from equipment procurement to community mobilization. It was a chance for some of the otherwise clinically-minded ophthalmologists in the room to get a broader perspective about eye care issues.
We started out with a discussion of Rapid Assessment of Avoidable Blindness (RAAB) surveys, how they work, and whether they are useful for East Africa. I learned that RAAB surveys give you a quick overview of the burden of a particular eye disease and can be used to help with district-level planning.
Another interesting talk was given by Dr. Wondu Alemayehu, country director for ORBIS Ethiopia. He spoke about the need for government advocacy for eye health. Governments often do not see prevention of blindness as a top health priority, especially when they are facing a huge burden of HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases, along with a limited budget. We discussed ways of convincing governments to understand the importance of eye care. One way is to present blindness as an economic burden. For every blind person, there is a person who has to stay home from work or school to care for this person, which means neither the blind person nor the caretaker are participating in the growth of the economy. Another way to get governments to provide support to eye care programs is to package eye care with primary health care programs.
After Dr. Alemayehu, Donna Sherard gave a talk about strategic communication in blindness prevention. Ms. Sherard specializes in health communication in other disease areas, but used her expertise to explain how the prevention of blindness is just as important, if not more important than the treatment of eye diseases. By asking the right questions, and understanding the priorities of communities, we can change the behavior that leads to blinding conditions in the first place. It was great to hear this discussion happening in front of ophthalmologists, who may sometimes be unable to see the larger picture: that blindness is caused by certain health behaviors, not by disease. This approach has been successful in other health fields, and needs to be addressed in eye health.
One of our own volunteer faculty, Robyn Frick, rounded out the day’s talks with a lecture about the importance of biomedical engineering for East African ophthalmology. Equipment is an important aspect of ophthalmology, so ensuring that there are resources to maintain equipment is equally as important.
This evening, there was a dinner held for all conference participants at the Peacock Hotel. A majority of the participants came for the dinner, and were joined by several ORBIS employees, including Geoffrey Holland, executive director, Erwin Temmerman, director of the Flying Eye Hospital, and Dr. Hunter Cherwek, medical director. It was great to be able to sit and talk with the participants in a more informal setting.