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New Initiative Set to Improve Eye Care in Sierra Leone

Pupils attend a koranic school in the town of Small Sefoda in eastern Sierra Leone, April 22, 2012.

Pupils attend a koranic school in the town of Small Sefoda in eastern Sierra Leone, April 22, 2012.

The people of the West African nation Sierra Leone are about to have improvements to their eye care thanks to a grant from the European Commission in the sum of about $900,000 (700,000 euros). The new initiative will be led by a non-governmental organization (NGO) called Sightsavers which plans to increase the number of eye care professionals in the country and services for people. The program will specifically target women, children and the elderly.

Freetown. It's loud, frantic,crowded and can be challenging just to walk around. Imagine being blind and having that same challenge.

Mohamed Jalloh who is completely blind in both eyes says getting back into normal society after going blind was traumatic.

He lost sight in his left eye after someone hit him. He lost sight in his right eye because of a retina detachment.

"It was very difficult, my transition was very difficult, I had to stay in house, for almost five years, I spent most of time in my room, the first day I went into street it was like learning to walk again," he said.

He had few resources to help him and says he also faced challenges trying to find work.

"The level of discrimination is very high in this country, to get a job is not easy at all, even when I came from college a second time - I could not get a job," he said.

But with a new initiative in place through Sightsavers and the European Commission things may improve for those who are completely blind or suffer from low vision.

Community-based rehabilitation centers

Part of this initiative will create more rehabilitation centers in communities across the country so people can have a smoother transition back into society.

It's a step in the right direction, says ophthalmologist Matthew Vandy.

"Those who are blind and cannot be cured will be trained how to take care of themselves, how to do farming or other vocational jobs that will help them live as a normal person," he explained.

Vandy is one of just five ophthalmologists in the country. He says he welcomes the new initiative because it will also offer an increase in training eye care professionals. The program will include training for at least three more ophthalmologists and eight cataract surgeons.

Many challenges

Vandy says Sierra Leone still suffers from several eye diseases. And the need for increased eye healthcare is important.

"The number one problem in Sierra Leone with elderly people is cataracts, second is glaucoma, that is when there's pressure in the eye and it damages nerves that connect the eye to the brain. So because of that people go blind and it is irreversible," he said.

He says the good news is that the rate for river blindness, which used to be the second leading cause of eye disease in Sierra Leone, has gone down.

Sightsavers has contributed to that development by distributing medication to people across the country.

Nancy Smart, the country director for Sightsavers, says this initiative with the European Commission was a long time in the making.

"We've actually sent a proposal three times, this is the third time, fortunately we've won the beat, and we are very happy as this is first eye health program being sponsored by European Commission in Sierra Leone," she said.

Targeting children

Smart says children will be one of the main targets. There are plans to go to primary schools and provide free eye screenings.

She adds that the program also aims to help those with disabilities. Sightsavers is partnering with several disability groups in Sierra Leone to make sure their clients will have access to services.

Smart realizes all these goals are ambitious but is confident.

"I think this is exciting but of course a challenging moment - exciting that we have received the funds and we want to see what we've slated be implemented, and of course go towards the prevention of blindness. And challenging because it's a big task," she said.

The program is set to take place over the next four years.