Video: Kalahari project gives people back their sight

Removing cataracts is easy and inexpensive. Yet in some parts of South Africa thousands of people are waiting for surgery.

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Cataracts make people blind but they are easily treatable.

A cataract is a common condition in which the eye’s natural lens becomes cloudy. It usually affects older people. A ten-minute surgery fixes the problem. Yet it is still South Africa’s leading cause of blindness.

In the Northern Cape, thousands of people are waiting for this life-changing operation. Although the surgery is simple, it nevertheless requires an ophthalmologist, nurses, a few consumables (such as artificial intraocular lenses) and working equipment. But only one public hospital in the province currently employs an ophthalmologist full-time: Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe Hospital, in Kimberley, where all cataract patients are referred.

This tertiary hospital already struggles with a lack of theatre-trained nurses and has to prioritise other ophthalmic diseases.

“People end up on a waiting list that is thousands-long, with no hope of ever reaching the top,” says Springbok-based optometrist Tharien Schoeman.

Frustrated with seeing her patients go blind without treatment, Schoeman founded Caring4Sight, joining other charities to perform “cataract surgery weeks” in Upington hospital, which has an eye surgery theatre but no appointed ophthalmologist.

The project, called Kalahari Wings, started three years ago and was initially supported by a Discovery grant that has since run out.

Eye surgeon Dr Jonathan Pons, who is based in Eswatini where he runs an eye clinic, flies to the Northern Cape with the support of aviation charities. “The first time, it was a wake-up call to realise that there are parts of this country that are worse off than Eswatini and many other African states,” he remembers.

They have so far operated on about 400 people, he estimates. But “the waiting list is probably just as long”, he says. “As quick as you do surgeries, more people are being added onto the waiting list.”

TOPICS:  Health

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