cbm recently organised a week-long surgical outreach clinic in Mingende, a small town located in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, performing cataract operations. The cbm team overcame some challenges during the week: difficult road access, frequent power cuts and a 7.2 earthquake shook the area! Luckily there was no significant damage and the surgeries could continue, with the surgical team working long hours to see as many clients as they could. Remarkably, by the end of the week, all 144 people had been seen, and a staggering 98 surgeries were completed, transforming peoples lives overnight.
The people arrived from remote villages, walking many hours barefoot, usually guided by family members. They used their savings to make this difficult and hazardous journey, along muddy walking trails, crossing rivers and streams that often have no bridge, but pursuing the journey feeling it was their only opportunity to have their vision restored.
Access to specialised medical services like eye doctors (ophthalmologists) is minimal with just 14 ophthalmologists practicing in the entire country, so many people in the highlands have never seen a doctor. For a nation with a population of 8.2 million, this is far below the 72 required to meet the recommended ratios. The vast majority of people live in rural areas, but most health services and specialists practice in larger towns, leaving the rural majority significantly under served.
This results in people being deeply affected by avoidable disabilities that are easy and relatively cost-effective to treat. Cataracts are a great example; in developed countries it would be unthinkable for someone to suffer blindness from advanced cataracts, but for many people in PNG this is a sad reality.
Disability such as blindness, is often met with suspicion in PNG. Those who are blind can be stigmatised and isolation is commonplace. Poor infrastructure in rural areas exacerbates this isolation as it makes moving around difficult and dangerous. People who are blind often remain at home, unable to socialise or work, becoming entirely dependent on the support of their family which can have a devastating effect on their physical and mental health.
To reduce the prevalence of avoidable blindness, and address the difficulties that rural populations face accessing specialist services, cbm has developed a comprehensive and sustainable programme. Over the last 20 years, cbm has worked in partnership with Inclusive Education Resource Centres (IERC) throughout PNG. IERC staff have incredible community networks and can reach extremely difficult to access communities. They travel great distances, often on foot, in search of people with disabilities.
Through their established relationship within the community, they conduct screening clinics for visual impairment and other disabilities, raising awareness of cataracts. They bring the good news that cataracts are operable and reversible, then refer people to cbm surgical outreach clinics like the one in Mingende.
cbm fund an eye surgeon and nurses to travel to small rural hospitals, bringing specialised equipment that is needed to set up a temporary surgical unit, allowing them to perform cataract surgery in difficult areas, at a very low cost.
Recognising the shortage of trained ophthalmologists and the long-term investment required to address the need, cbm is committed to specialised eye surgery training to PNG doctors through a partnership with the University of Papua New Guinea School of Medicine. During the recent clinic in Mingende, specialising doctors gained valuable surgical experience in the supportive environment with cbm ophthalmology lecturer Dr Wabulembo.
After surgery is completed, the IERC staff follow up post-operative community care with each person to reduce complications and improve the outcomes. This also allows the IERC workers to link clients (and other people with disabilities in the village) to medical, educational, and/or social services as needed.
The partnership between cbm and the IERC staff is vital. cbm seconded ophthalmologist Dr Wabulembo , acknowledges that the programme “is providing resources and bringing experienced personnel to places where the clients actually are, and this is critical.” Without the ongoing partnership with the IERC, it would be challenging for cbm to reach those needing specialist eye services in the rural highlands. cbm Country Coordinator in PNG remarks “the logistics required to organise a cataract outreach clinic require strong and trusted partnerships and networks with local communities. Links that cbm has established in PNG over the last 40 years.”
cbm and partners are some of the only organisations that are active and delivering these life-changing services in the highlands. Without cataract outreach clinics, hundreds of people each year would remain untreated and deeply affected by avoidable blindness. Dr Wabulembo describes the week-long clinic, “the joy among the clients and their families that comes with the restoration of sight after cataract surgery motivates me. I feel privileged to be part of a team that is making such a remarkable difference to people’s lives”.
Every time cbm runs a clinic in the highlands, it is has an immensely positive impact on many people’s lives. Restoring one’s sight also restores their independence and dignity. It is a new beginning, a second life. Jack, a 25-year-old man who was rushing out of the clinic to go home and see his son for the first time, described it perfectly “having my vision restored is the greatest gift I could ever receive”.