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Last Updated: Thursday, 9 October, 2003, 11:13 GMT 12:13 UK
Africa urged to revise blind policy
River blindness
River blindness is among the preventable diseases
Africans have been urged to revise their attitude towards the blind by a major international eyesight charity.

Many African societies shun their blind as too much of a burden, with some left to perish or else survive on minimal help.

But the prevalence of blindness-causing diseases and problems in the continent has led to a call in a change in such treatment.

"Sight issues are a big problem in Sierra Leone, as well as in the rest of the West Africa region," Dennis Williams of Sierra Leone's Sightsavers International told BBC World Service's Africa Live! programme.

"Because of the inability of people to work with blind people, blind people are treated very badly and left to sit behind their houses while other people do their normal day's work.

"Blind people are considered not capable of earning an income, not contributing to their communities, their homes, their families, their society," he said.

'Left to perish'

Mr Williams added that the problems for blind people in Sierra Leone had been exacerbated by the decade-long civil war in the country.

The tragedy is that for Africa, 80% of the causes of blindness in Africa are preventable
Dr Hannah Fahl
"Sighted people were running for their lives, carrying a few of the blind people they could carry, those close to them.

"The rest were left to perish."

The vast majority of the blind in Africa lose their sight needlessly, doctors say.

"Africa is one of the most affected areas globally as far as blindness is concerned - not just in the relevant rate of blindness but in the actual numbers of people who are affected," said Nigerian doctor Hannah Fahl.

"The tragedy is that for Africa, 80% of the causes of blindness in Africa are preventable."

Dr Fahl added that Africa remained stuck in such a situation for many reasons.

"One is that we are not giving people enough information for them to take care of their own eyes," she said.

"We have not de-mystified information, to get it down to a language that is digestible to them."

And she added that, with all the rest of the continent's problems, eye care was simply "not a priority."

"Africa has more than enough share of other diseases - such as malaria, HIV/Aids - so the government commits its funds to these priorities," she said.

"Eye care has not made the top priority for a lot of our governments."

Positive Gambia

However, some governments in the country have been making efforts to help their blind.

The Gambia is widely acknowledged to have one of the most forward-thinking policies on the blind on the continent.

In Sierra Leone the Sight Savers is doing a marvellous job in help people regain their sight
Michael Katta, Sierra Leone

"The Gambia established a National Eye care Programme following our prevalence survey of blindness and eye diseases in 1986," said Dr Yakumba Kassama, the country's Health Minister.

"The leading causes of blindness in The Gambia are cataracts, glaucoma, and cornoreal opacities.

"Based on the fact that these conditions are either preventable and/or curable... The Gambia actually focussed on the primary healthcare approach."

Dr Kassama said that this "primary healthcare approach" involved making services "affordable, accessible, and appropriate."

"Every five years we have a plan of action which is developed, with particular emphasis on human resource deployment," he said.

This involved the training of paramedics to handle cataracts, for example.

There was also training of community ophthalmic nurses, village health workers, and traditional birth attendants.

He added that The Gambia was taking advantage of "appropriate technology" - to help its blind - such as building and equipping of secondary eye care centres, and the local production of eye drops.

"We are even saving money rather than spending," he said.

"At the same time [we are] getting access to the community and addressing the issue at primary level."



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