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Bringing eyecare to children in Tanzania

02/07/2019
By Cathy Lewis
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The eyecare sector is well known for its philanthropy, and there are many programs available to people enthusiastic to give back. CATHY LEWIS recounts her recent experience working in Africa.

Have you ever ridden in a bus with a goat? Or visited a Maasai warrior and his multiple wives and children? Have you seen an elephant play in the wild, or hiked to Mt Kilimanjaro base camp? After an incredible two weeks of voluntary orthoptic work at The School of St Jude in Tanzania, my answer to all of these questions is now yes. I’ve worked overseas as an orthoptist before, but this was tryly a unique experience.

The School of St Jude is located over two campuses in the Arusha district in Tanzania, and provides free, high quality primary and secondary education to 1,800 children from the poorest of the local families, who – due to poverty and social pressures – would otherwise be unlikely to complete their schooling.

Gemma Sisia is an Australian woman who founded the school, starting with only a plot of land and a $10 donation. Through years of fundraising and hard work, it has grown it to what it is today. The school has a strong focus on providing a range of welfare, educational, and nutritional benefits, which enables each student to reach their full potential.

"We saw a variety of interesting conditions, but by far the most common were complications relating to dry eyes due to the dusty environment"

An important part of this program is the annual visit by the School of St Jude Health Check Team, which is now in its 12th year. The multidisciplinary team is comprised of orthoptists, GP’s, paediatricians, physiotherapists, nurses, teachers, social workers and psychologists. We were a large team with over 20 members, and I was lucky enough to be one of the five orthoptists recruited to perform the vision screening.

Each day, the volunteers were split into three teams, and screening of vision, hearing, general health and well-being was performed on students attending the lower primary, upper primary and secondary campuses.

The vision assessment was restricted due to time and equipment, but generally comprised of: visual acuity, cover test, ocular motility, 20pD fusion test, pupil check and convergence near point. The children were a delight to examine and seemed to genuinely enjoy receiving their check-up, which made our role even more enjoyable.

We saw a variety of interesting conditions, but by far the most common were complications relating to dry eyes due to the dusty environment. Another common complaint was convergence insufficiency. Recommendations were made for those children that failed the screening, which was then followed up by The School of St Jude with the child’s family and local health care providers.

Carl Zeiss
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The Health Check Team attended various activities outside of the screening. Some were organised for the whole group to attend, such as visiting various charitable health care and educational facilities, and other activities were offered for smaller groups.

Two of the more physically fit team members participated in the demanding Kilimanjaro half marathon, whilst others chose the more relaxing option of swimming in the warm natural springs. Many went on safaris and some hiked not only to Mt Kilimanjaro base camp, which is as far as I got, but all the way to the mountain’s summit.

I particularly enjoyed visiting the primary school boarding facilities. The children were so proud to show us their rooms, and show how tidy and well organised their cupboards were. I was also given the opportunity to go on a home visit with a little girl from Grade 2. The experience was eye opening and very moving. She lived with her mother and two younger sisters in a tiny, one room shack with no running water or electricity, all sharing the one double bed.

The students performed for us during their school assemblies and their performances were so different to what I have seen in Australia and Norway. Recorders were replaced with the rhythmic beat of drums. and dance moves performed that were just mesmerising.

I loved being a part of the Orthoptic team. If you are an orthoptist up for an adventure, I highly recommend this amazing experience.

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