11 October 2018

Liberia: Blindness Threatens Liberia's Population

Blindness in Liberia is increasing by the thousands ever year, according to Dr. Edward B. Gizzie, head of the Liberia Eye Center at the John F. Kennedy (JFK) Medical Center, adding to more than 30,000 people who have already gone blind.

The major factor leading to an increase in blindness, according to Dr. Gizzie, is cataract, which he says is not only unique to Liberia but to the whole world.

Research has shown that the prevalence of blindness in Liberia is estimated at 1 percent, with an estimated total of 35,000 blind people. Cataract is the major cause of blindness in Liberia, with an estimated backlog of 17,500 people or 50 percent of the total blind population.

Cataract is an eye disease that affects the cornea (dark portion of the eye), which leads to total blindness when not removed or treated.

In order to attack the confronting problems, the JFK Eye Center, in partnership with India, is contemplating on establishing a Cornea Transplant Center in the country where visually impaired persons will be operated on to regain their lost sight.

Dr. Merle Fernandes of the LV Prasad Eye Institute in India told the Daily Observer yesterday, October 10, that it takes a country to establish an eye bank where cornea will be harvested from dead persons to give sight to a blind living person(s).

Dr. Fernandes, who specializes in cornea transplant, said the cornea of a dead person can be extracted and preserved, and then transplanted on the eye of the blind to regain sight.

She said while vigorous research is ongoing to determine whether or not it is possible to use synthetic materials to treat cornea blindness, the option at hand now is to remove the cornea of a person who has just died, to replace the damaged cornea of the living to regain sight.

This means that in order to get the cornea of the dead, the person, prior to his/her death, must have conceded that it must be done or family members of the deceased must agree to allow the cornea of the deceased family member to be extracted.

It also takes a consensus at the national level for the government to make a policy that allows such medical practice to take place in the country.

Dr. Fernandes, who is in Liberia for this purpose, said due to the lack of an eye bank in the country, she cannot perform as many surgical transplants as expected of her. She leaves Liberia on Saturday, October 13.

Moreover, she said the cornea tissue she uses to treat some patients in the country was brought from an international eye bank, but she expects to perform eye surgery for not less than 12 patients with cornea blindness.

While performing surgical operations in Liberia, Dr. Fernandes said she uses the time also to train resident eye clinicians to have greater insight in their work.

This, according to her, will enable Liberians to have the capacity to attend to their citizens instead of experts coming to perform for them what they must do.

Fernandes said as they consolidate the professional relationship between JFK Eye Center and its Indian counterpart, they are also contemplating on establishing a cornea transplant center in West Africa and decentralizing the ongoing program at the JFK to cover the rest of the country.

She said with the potential she sees in Liberians, she expressed the hope that an Ophthalmology (study of eye functions and diseases) center can be established in the country to allow them to learn more and tackle blindness facing many people.

While referencing the Indian model, Dr. Fernandes told this newspaper that JFK can serve as a referral center, while sub branches can be established in rural areas, "because not everyone has the means to travel to Monrovia for treatment that may require a minor operation."

Earlier, Dr. Edward B. Gizzie said the partnership started with former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf when she visited New Delhi (India) to receive a prize where she stayed and visited an internationally recognized eye institute.

According to Dr. Gizzie, one of President Sirleaf's sons received his treatment there, "so she asked the institution to help Liberia. It is from there the partnership was established, which afforded Dr. Gizzie the opportunity to travel to India for a refresher training course in 2016.

"I alone cannot do the work, and so we need to train other Liberians to come and contribute," Dr. Gizzie said, adding that the partnership is for five years, and if five Liberians are trained within the period, there will be 25 eye doctors in the country at the end of the project.

He said the Indian medical experts will be coming periodically to perform surgery, and at the same time, train Liberian eye clinicians.

Gizzie meanwhile called on decision makers and those financially strong to support the project, noting that it will help to sustain the program for the betterment of the lives of Liberian citizens.

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