Ladies and gentlemen, please buckle your safety belts and ensure that your seatbacks and tray tables are in their upright and locked positions. The surgery is about to start.
ORBIS International, a nonprofit organization dedicated to saving sight, is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year—and with it, the success of its unique tool in the fight against avoidable blindness in developing countries.
The Flying Eye Hospital is the world’s only plane-meets-eye hospital, converted from a DC-10 aircraft. Quite literally a hospital with wings, the plane has visited more than 77 countries and conducted 279 training and service programs in 154 cities since 1982.
The plane is really a teaching and training tool, explains Sarina Prabasi, ORBIS’s deputy chief of programs. "We are teaching advanced skills to eye-care professionals in developing countries," she says. "It’s world-renowned faculty with a global pool of talented specialists that volunteer for us to teach docs in developing countries techniques and methods for treating tech-intensive treatments."
Blindness in the developing world looks quite a bit different from blindness in wealthier developed nations. In many of the places ORBIS works, many of the people who are blind don’t need to be blind.
According to the World Health Organization, 39 million people in the world are estimated to be blind, but around 80% of that visual impairment can be avoided or cured. The vast majority of the visually impaired, about 90%, live in developing countries. Prabasi says that cataracts are the biggest cause, but there are also regional eye diseases like trachoma an infectious disease that mainly affects mothers and children, and comes from poor sanitary conditions.
ORBIS works to develop local eye-care systems, and the plane is a powerful tool to bring attention to the problem, as well as bringing needed training. It’s a symbol of what might be possible in the future, explains Prabasi. "Even if the local hospital doesn’t have the technology and resources available on the flying hospital, the plane still gives local doctors the opportunity to train on more modern equipment."
A big plus: The plane can reach remote places, but it also builds the capacity of local hospitals and the confidence of doctors.
Prabasi points out that while it may seem that blindness is a confined issue, it connects so many challenges to development. "Blindness links in with every aspect of someone’s life: school, work, discrimination, even becoming a victim of crime." She adds that there is a gender dimension—in that women are more likely to be blind—and a children’s rights issue.
Says Prabasi: "Childhood blindness means many years of being blind, and not having access to education, which means chances of employment are reduced. Blindness is a specific issue, but it is so cross-cutting."