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Nutritional Deficiencies Contribute to Blindness in Zambia

Zambia has one of highest rates of blindness in southern Africa – with about 105,000 people who are sight-impaired. Specialists say in here, as in other places in the developing world, the overwhelming majority of cases have man-made causes, like poor nutrition. Kaunda Danstan has more from the Zambia capital, Lusaka.

Zambia’s rural Luapala valley has 13,000 cases of blindness - the highest rate in the country.

Joseph Munsanje is the country representative for Sight Savers International-Zambia -- a U.K.-based non-governmental organization, or NGO, that is to combat blindness and empower visually impaired people in developing countries.

He said the reasons for blindness in the valley, which borders the Democratic Republic of Congo, are similar to those in other parts of the country"

"There's low and poor immunization systems and then measles in Luapula. There are also problems to do with diet in Luaplula or nutrition, in that most people eat fish but remove the liver which is rich in vitamin A. The only other food that they eat is cassava which also lacks in the vitamin (vitamin A). There is also [the danger of] using tradition medications or mutti (traditional concoction/ ointments) being used to put in the eye to treat eye problems," he said.

Munsanje said his NGO is educating people in Luapala valley about the importance of consuming more nutritious foods like eggs and green vegetables. It is also encouraging people to grow palm oil plants, from which they can extract oil rich in vitamins for domestic cooking.

Sight Savers said most cases of blindness are not reversible, so the only option is to provide visual aids to those who still have partial sight.

The group is also providing financial and technical support like surgical and optical equipment to key government ministries and partner NGOs.

According to Musanje, "The three key things on the prevention of blindness is to have the right human resources in the primary eye clinics, operating theatres, and the right programs to deal with each disease the cause blindness. "

Sight Saver’s program -- called Vision 2020 -- aims at strengthening eye care systems in all health institutions.

Nevertheless, Wamundila Waliuya, a human rights advocate for the sight-impaired, who is blind himself, challenged the government and NGOs to do more.

"Money must be put more on the prevention of blindness then rehabilitation and education people who are already blind. It does not make sense to wait of someone to go blind and then come-in to rehabilitate and educate," he said.

According to the World Health Organisation or WHO, of the 36 countries where cases of blindness are reported, 30 of those countries are in sub-Saharan Africa.