Syria in sight for Flying Eye Hospital

The Orbis Flying Eye Hospital is scheduled to make a second operational visit to the Middle East in a mission to bring its prevention of avoidable blindness campaign to Syria.

It follows a successful mission to Libya a year ago where its medical team carried out training as well as performed operations to rectify avoidable blindness in patients.

Its most recent visit to the region was a short visit to Dubai in its fund-raising role. It was a star turn at the Routes conference at which airline route planners meet airport representatives. Routes has formally adopted the Orbis Flying Eye Hospital as its charity. The airline industry of the region gave generously to the cause.

“The value of the link with Routes is that it enables us to make contact with companies within aviation and to develop long-term relationships,” said Georgina Howson, Orbis fundraising manager, corporates.

“In meeting with people from the airports, it may lead to invitations from governments. These are all very useful contacts.” The Flying Eye Hospital is the most visible part of the Orbis mission – which is to tackle the worldwide incidence of avoidable blindness.

According to the World Health Organisation, 37 million people worldwide are blind – 28 million unnecessarily. Though the cure is often straightforward and inexpensive, most cases are in poor countries where basic medical help is often out of reach. The mission of Orbis is to eliminate blindness and restore sight in the developing world where at least 90% of the blind live. Orbis targets a range of avoidable eye diseases, including cataracts, diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma, trachoma and onchocerciasis.

It has adopted a multilayered strategy in its campaign, combining actual operations during missions to countries with an extensive teaching programme and public awareness campaigns. More recently, it has added online teaching to its armoury.

But it is the aircraft itself which has, perhaps, the greatest impact. The unique Flying Eye Hospital – fitted with operating theatres, labs and a lecture theatre where operations can be watched live – becomes a magnet for not just medical specialists and the media, but for major political figures. “It really is the star of the show,” said Pamela Williams-Jones, Orbis executive director. “We will often get a president visiting the aircraft and always the minister of health of a country along with their senior people. “That’s very important for us because we then have a chance to get across the really important messages and at a level where action can happen very quickly.”

It also answers the critics who ask whether the money needed to operate and maintain such an expensive item of equipment would not be better spent establishing a lot of polyclinics in countries afflicted with high incidences of eye disease. “No,” said Williams-Jones.

“The Flying Eye Hospital is an invaluable asset and it is what holds everything else together.” The pulling power of the Flying Eye Hospital could be seen during its visit to Libya just over a year ago. Among the VIP guests to visit the aircraft was Aisha Gaddafi, daughter of the country’s president and Secretary General of Watasimo Association for Charitable Works.

The visit of the Flying Eye Hospital and its medical team was the first by an international Non- Government Organisation (NGO) following the lifting of sanctions against Libya. The sanctions had effectively isolated Libya since their imposition in 1992.

Dr Suad Fituri, director of Tripoli Eye Hospital and chairman of the Libyan National Committee for Prevention of Blindness (LNCB) said of the visit: “By working with Orbis, we are committed to increasing the clinical capacity of Libyan ophthalmologists and providing the public with high quality eye care. “Many of these eye diseases and causes of blindness in Libya can be prevented or treated through early detection and correct diagnosis, especially among children and the diabetic population.”

The historic visit came at a time when more than 10 years of international isolation had left Libya with a major shortfall in expertise and the development of ophthalmic subspecialities, including childhood blindness – the costliest form of blindness in any country. At the time of the visit, there were about 180 ophthalmologists working in secondary and tertiary care hospitals in Libya. About 90% of the country’s eye surgeons were based in the five largest cities, although the cities contained only 50% of the population.

Orbis tailored its programme for Libya to support the LNCB programme to develop essential subspecialities, focusing on the treatment of cataract, retinal disease, corneal disease and glaucoma. The training included lectures, discussions, surgical demonstrations, wet-labs, vitreoretinal surgery simulation and hands-on surgical instruction.

During the programme:

- 12 ophthalmologists received hands-on training, with 50 more benefiting from participatory sessions on diagnosis and case management.

- Four anaesthesiologists and nurse anaesthetists received training.

- Four ophthalmic assistants received training in the paediatric eye examination and diagnosis of strabismus; six nurses received hands-on training in instrument care and sterilisation procedures; 30 nurses attended lectures and workshops on a variety of ophthalmic topics; and six biomedical engineers were trained in the maintenance and management of ophthalmic equipment.

- 45 patients received surgical treatment.

20 patients received laser treatment. In parallel, Orbis ran a programme aimed at raising public awareness of the issues through media briefings and a campaign highlighting the need for treatment for avoidable blindness, especially among Libya’s paediatric and diabetic populations.

The planned visit to Syria will be factored into the busy Orbis schedule which includes work in five priority countries – China, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, India and Vietnam. The Orbis’ visit to Dubai was the occasion for dozens of visits, giving medical visitors or potential financial contributors a chance to tour the flying hospital itself, a 36- year-old DC-10, once operated by Laker Airways.

The aircraft is equipped with a state-of-the-art teaching facility, a clinic for laser treatment and an operating theatre where doctors in the developing world receive hands-on surgical training from volunteer surgeons. As well as carrying out sight-saving operations on patients, each tour by the Flying Eye Hospital involves teaching local medics the latest techniques.

Each operation is filmed – including a camera mounted inside the microscope focused on the patient’s eyes – and transmitted to the trainee medics within the training suite within the aircraft. Two-way communications enable trainee medics to ask questions of the surgeon during operations.

Since the creation of Orbis in 1982, nearly 1,000 sightsaving programmes have been carried out in 85 countries around the world. That translates into three million patients receiving direct treatment through the Orbis programme and an estimated 27 million patients benefiting from Orbissupported programmes.

The organisation relies on volunteers, both medical professionals and the pilots, who are drawn from the fleets of FedEx and United Airlines. As well as treating patients directly, the flying eye hospital serves as a mobile base for training healthcare professionals. More than 124,000 healthcare professionals have been able to enhance their skills thanks to Orbis.

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