In 2004 2h became aware of the widespread prevalence of avoidable blindness amongst Cambodia’s poor. Cambodia has 160,000 cases of cataract blindness – of which 80-90% are treatable – with only three qualified eye surgeons available.
Realizing that eye surgery was either unaffordable, inaccessible or considered too dangerous by local villagers, Dr Ek Sarou (a Cambodian trained optometrist) set about establishing the Battambang Optical Clinic. Supported by his partnership with 2h, Sarou rented and refi tted a suitable building, collected the necessary equipment and gathered a team of professionals dedicated to providing quality eye surgery to those who cannot afford it.
Currently 300 eye surgeries are being performed every month and the team are on target to clear the cataract backlog in Battambang.
The chance to see. We open our eyes. It’s instantaneous. In a few hours up to 60 people are assessed for treatment of cataract or pterygium eye conditions. A surgical procedure that takes 15 minutes can actually add years of quality living. According to World Health Organisation (WHO) studies, on average, people blinded by cataract in developing nations die within 4 years of becoming blind. With well over 80% of Cambodia’s population living in rural and remote areas it makes it hard for the average person to access professional medical services.
Bringing eye assessments to the villages helps take away some of the barriers for people suffering from avoidable blindness. Lack of accessibility to transport, bad roads, cost of treatment, lack of support from relatives or the fear of treatment are just some of the reasons for people holding back. Whether it’s the local pagoda or underneath a village house, people gather for the free eye screenings partnered by BOC and The 2h Project. In just a few minutes a person has their eye sight tested, the health of their eyes checked and an assessment made for their suitability for treatment. With a backlog of 180,000 cataract cases, some people can’t afford the wait.
Sweet Dreams. Not sure how she did it. The idea of anyone even touching my eye brings me to tears. A bit of grit is a small nightmare; a needle, an artificial lens, incisions – awake! It’s much more than I can imagine. The end of the world even. The start of a new one maybe. The other side of the door is the pre-op . If needles aren’t your thing – don’t go there. If you’re in need of a miracle it’s possibly your best chance. There’s the weight to keep the pressure on the eye. Then there’s a wait for the operating room. Not long after she’s led inside. In an afternoon around 10 people will walk this way. The room is purpose built. Not a lot of room but how much room do you need to pull out the damaged lens or remove a rogue growth. Dr Bal Kumar K.C. sits behind the micro-scope. We call him KC for short. He’s a Nepalese Ophthalmologist working in Cambodia with the team at BOC for 12 months. He’s confident, he talks lots, he’s passionate about his work and he is unmistakably brilliant at what he does. A warm reassurance pours out of KC. “Your eye is great, let me make it better” is his mantra. Even I’m beginning to feel comfortable! Probably because I don’t need surgery.
This is no dress rehearsal. Not much room for the novice when you’re talking about putting a slit in someone’s eye. Excellence isn’t optional. Cambodia has an incredible low number of health professionals dedicated to eye care. Combined with a lack of government funding, a poor public health system and the cost of expensive materials and equipment avoidable blindness remains a low priority. In spite of this there are a couple of suitcases filled with intraocular lenses (IOL) from India sitting in the corner of BOC’s store room. A surgeon from Nepal and one from Cambodia work 5 days a week in the operating room. Various pieces of equipment made in Australia are used for consults and surgery and a team of dedicated health professionals work tirelessly to provide the highest quality eye care. The facilities might not look like much but they include everything that’s necessary. Waiting and consulting rooms downstairs and operating and recovery areas on the first floor. With so many surgeries it looks like a production line – but nothing cheap and nasty. We think of it as Mercedes eye care. Nothing but the best.
Why the prevalence of cataract eye disease in Cambodia? Simply because the treatment has never been made a priority. While it’s not an infectious condition if no action is taken the problem doesn’t go away, it steadily looms larger. New cases, approximately 20,000 are anticipated each year. It’s easy to see, if you don’t do something, you end up with a major backlog and a major crisis! Though the cost of surgery in Australia or other developed countries is many times more expensive, people are treated without delay. The cost of cataract surgery at BOC is $40, the cost of Pterygium surgery is $20. Because cataract and pterygium are degenerative conditions the delay goes with the territory, people just keep making the personal adjustments, until it’s too late. Of course $40 might not seem much to us, but to the poorest of the poor it can put even a 15 minute operation out of reach! That’s where we step in.