Fighting an epidemic in the Pacific Islands: PNG

Getruth Bare, Charge Nurse Manager, Modilon Eye Clinic, Madang Papua New Guinea and Hayley Morrison, Resource Mobilisation Coordinator, The Fred Hollows Foundation NZ celebrate the results from their recent outreach to Ambunti in Papua New Guinea. This programme brings hope and access to sight-saving eye care services for PNG’s indigenous people.

William

The Western Pacific region is home to the vibrant, mountainous landscape of Papua New Guinea (PNG). Home to more than 7,600,000 people, the majority of its population are scattered across isolated islands or live in rugged mountains, with limited access to basic health services.

Since 2007, the Fred Hollows Foundation NZ has been training and working with the indigenous local eye care personnel to ensure that the population here has access to high quality eye care services. The ultimate goal is preventing and reducing avoidable blindness and visual impairment in the country.

The need

There is an urgent need for good quality eye care services in PNG. A Rapid Assessment of Avoidable Blindness (RAAB) conducted in 2017 revealed that over 40,000 adults aged 50+ years across all regions in PNG are blind in both eyes, and almost 70,000 are blind in one eye.

Outreaches are a simple, cost-effective way to reach those in need. They also show that training indigenous doctors and nurses in eye care is the only way to eliminate avoidable blindness and vision impairment in a sustainable way.

Outreach in East Sepik

In May this year, a team from the Eye Clinic at Modilon General Hospital in Madang organised an outreach to one the poorest places in the country: East Sepik.

Traversing the country by boat and plane, the team arrived in East Sepik to find the majority of the older population there either partially or completely blind in one or both eyes, compromising their fishing and gardening livelihoods. This created a significant financial burden on their families and the wider community, and added to the psychological stress caused by their eye conditions.

Seventy-year-old William from a village in Ambunti had a life like this. He had been blind for ten years before the outreach team arrived. As soon as he heard about their visit, he asked his wife to take him to the local health centre where the screenings and surgeries were being conducted. And so he came – transported by wheelbarrow. After having surgery in both eyes, William could not believe that he could see again. “I have been dead for ten years,” he exclaimed, “but you have given my sight back!”

William after surgery

On this same outreach, over 1,000 people were screened and 127 people received sight-saving surgery. The outreach team was made up of qualified Papua New Guinean eye nurses and an ophthalmologist, Dr David Pahau. The patients were screened for eye conditions, ensuring that they received appropriate treatment and were referred, if additional support was required. Essential follow-up visits were also provided.

As locals, the outreach team members knew the context, language and culture, and the unique challenges the patients face: they were well-equipped to provide high-quality care.

Following this model, there is hope that the indigenous people of Papua New Guinea will receive sight-saving eye care services in the long-term.