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Calgary Herald: Blindness in Africa can be prevented, says visiting expert

Originally published in Calgary Herald, City & Region section, page B9, June 23, 2011.

Eyesight, for many, is something taken for granted until it is lost.

In North America, the majority of blindness is caused naturally by old age. However, the situation in Africa is quite a different story.

"In Africa, we have eight million people who are blind, and maybe three times that many who are severely visually impaired," said Dr. Daniel Etya'ale, executive director of the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness.

"If you take that eight million, 80 per cent of those are blind from causes that can either be treated or prevented."

Etya'ale, who spoke Wednesday at the annual meeting of Calgarybased Operation Eyesight Universal, is leading the charge in Africa against avoidable blindness.

With 19 per cent of the world's blind population -many of whom are children -Africa represents the biggest challenge for Vision 2020. Vision 2020 is an ambitious set of goals put forth by the international agency and the World Health Organization intended to end avoidable blindness in the world by the year 2020.

"Avoidable blindness encompasses that 80 per cent, the things for which we can get ourselves excited, organize ourselves and try to eliminate as much as we can," said Etya'ale.

Ranging from malnutrition to water-borne parasites to cataracts, Etya'ale estimated 70 per cent of blindness in children cannot only be prevented, but prevented by non-specialist physicians. The key, he said, is a combination of disease control, human resources and infrastructure.

"When you do the three together, you ensure nobody will go back frustrated because he or she has had training, but not the basic equipment to do what he or she has been trained to do," he said.

Despite the dire situation, Etya'ale is optimistic. A burgeoning international focus on local solutions, driven more by community involvement than foreign aid, means that doctors make decisions and help in ways most relevant to those involved.

"The really inspirational thing is to realize that even in the most desperate areas, it is possible to do things," he said. "I assure you, if you care to find out, there's a lot that is happening, of people doing things for themselves."

It's a sentiment echoed by Operation Eyesight Universal president and chief executive officer, Pat Ferguson.

"The solutions for some of the problems in developing countries lie in those developing countries," she said.

(c) Calgary Herald. Reproduced for portfolio purposes only.