Article by Paul Turner
Missionary with Community of Disciples of Christ in Congo, Global Ministries

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Approximately 90 people suffering from various eye diseases visit Bolenge Hospital each month. The nurses and doctors on staff do a good job diagnosing eye problems and prescribing appropriate medication. However, like most other hospitals in the interior provinces of DR Congo, there is no practicing ophthalmologist on staff to perform needed eye surgeries and follow-up care. 

This is why more than 1,000 people recently put themselves at considerable risk to journey hundreds of miles from Mbandaka to Basankusu for the chance to receive free eye surgery sponsored by Catholic Charities. The Community of Disciples of Christ in Congo (CDCC) works ecumenically on a host of healthcare outreach activities.  The exodus of people in need of urgent eye care was confirmation of CDCC’s efforts to build capacity at Bolenge Hospital to address the high number of eye disease cases. 

The two most common eye diseases diagnosed at Bolenge Hospital are Glaucoma and Cataracts. Cataracts are responsible for half of all blindness in the world.  In developing countries like DR Congo, people with cataracts routinely go blind. This is unfortunate because the treatment is simple and the costs can range between $15 and $100. Yet, the price is still out of reach for many, and there are very few trained ophthalmologists in the country to perform eye surgeries and dispense treatment.

Dr. Yourson Bosolo, Director of CDCC Health Department, wants to change this. First, he wants to attract two resident Ophthalmologists who will provide continuous care for the 90 patients per month that come to Bolenge Hospital with impaired vision.  These specialists could then be deployed via the boat ambulance to diagnose and treat people living in remote villages. They could also help alleviate the huge backlog of patients in need of Cataract surgery. Second, he wants to acquire the equipment necessary to properly diagnose eye diseases and recommend precise treatment.

Just last year National Geographic published an article stating how close we are to eradicating human blindness thanks to groundbreaking research and new treatments.   The article also contained some interesting facts about global blindness;

o   There are 285 million people worldwide who suffer from vision loss that interferes with daily activities.

o   39 million of them are totally blind.

o   Most of the visually impaired live in developing nations. The vast majority of the world’s blind live in Africa and Southwest Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc.).

o   Vision impairment is caused by eye disease, conditions like structural abnormalities and aging.

o   Some 80 percent of cases are preventable or treatable.

o   Eye disease increases as the population ages. 82 percent of the blind are over 50.

The article also points out that eye disease is predominantly a problem of the poor, with a wide gulf between developed and developing countries when it comes to care. A leading cause of blindness is Diabetes, another chronic disease that disproportionately impacts the poor. Visual impairment and blindness affects whole families and society, because families must sacrifice to care for a visually impaired family member, while the loss of economic activity and access to education can impact a society. 

Meanwhile, Dr. Bosolo says, “we need the specialists and the equipment to be effective in treating the people we know with eye disease”. Dr. Bosolo is open to medical camps with volunteer doctors as a means to address the current need, but he knows the more sustainable solution is making Bolenge Hospital a year round destination for diagnosis, treatment and surgery to address all forms of eye disease.  

It’s good to know that one day human blindness may be a thing of the past.  Let’s pray that the race to cure blindness also includes the ability to deliver them to the poorest regions of the world. 

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AuthorAlisa Mittelstaedt