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Mercy Ships Shares the Right to Sight on a Global Scale

World Sight Day celebrates a blessing that we often taken for granted – the gift of sight. This year the focus is specifically on eye health and equal access to care. Mercy Ships uses its state-of-the-art hospital ship, the Africa Mercy, to deliver world-class health care to some of the poorest countries in the world. Their services include Mercy Vision, an eye care program that includes land-based eye clinics as well as eye surgeries done onboard the ship.

Eye patients under the canopy at the Celebration of Sight at the hospitality centre

Statistics from the World Health Organization show that most of the world’s blindness is preventable. But in many poor countries, eye care is simply not available or not accessible. For example, the West African country of Togo has a population of 6.4 million people … and only 2 hospitals. The fact that the majority of the population lives on less than $2 per day further complicates access to health care.

Komlavi, a local artist in Togo, West Africa, simply described his dilemma, saying, “I am a sculptor and a carpenter – a wood artist. I was having this eye problem for a long time, but I was unable to go to the hospital.” He needed a miracle. And, one day, that miracle literally walked into his shop.

Catherine and Marty Schwebel, volunteer Chaplains onboard the Africa Mercy, met Komlavi while they were browsing through the market. They liked him and his wooden sculptures so much that they referred all of their Mercy Ships friends to him for purchases!

A few days later, some other Mercy Ships volunteers visited Komlavi’s shop. He mentioned that he couldn’t see well out of his right eye. Alana Abernathy, a member of the eye team, recalls, “I took him over into the shade where I could see into his pupil better. Sure enough, I saw one of those dense, white cataracts.” Alana knew this was a problem that Mercy Ships could definitely solve. She wrote down the location of the eye care screening and told Komlavi to come to the screening very soon.

A few days later, Marty and Catherine saw Komlavi walking up to the ship. He showed them the note that Alana had written. The Schwebels jumped into a Mercy Ships vehicle and drove Komlavi to the eye screening site. By the end of the day, he was cleared for the surgery that would restore his sight.

Komlavi’s story is encouraging, but there are many more people who desperately need eye care. According to Vision 2020, cataracts are the leading cause of blindness, and 80% of blindness is treatable, curable or preventable (Vision 2020). Simple and effective strategies could address this inequity, claims Dr. Glenn Strauss. He gave up his eye practice in the US to serve fulltime with Mercy Ships as Chief of Ophthalmology and as the Vice President of Health Care Initiatives.

Since 2004, Dr. Strauss has fine-tuned a procedure for cataract removal called MSICS (Manual Small Incision Cataract Surgery). The technique, which has been developed in Nepal, India, and onboard the Africa Mercy, requires no sutures. It is also cost-effective and efficient, allowing for a high-volume turnover of patients. Dr. Strauss can serve approximately 40 patients per day by using this procedure.

During a recent Mercy Ships Field Service in West Africa, over 700 patients a day lined up outside the Eye Center. To address this need, Mercy Ships also trains local doctors in the MSICS technique. For the last three years, Alcon, a faithful corporate supporter of Mercy Ships, has sponsored a fellowship program. One recipient is Dr. Abram Wodome, a native of West Africa. He and Dr. Strauss trained five additional surgeons at two hospitals in Benin. As a result, the amount of surgeries went from 320 (all 5 combined) surgeries per year to 2,000 (all five combined) surgeries per year. That’s an increase of 525%!

Gifts from faithful donors have rescued many patients like Komlavi from a world of darkness, and they have provided training for physicians like Dr. Wodome to offer hope and healing to his countrymen. Even small donations have long-lasting, and often life-transforming, effects in countries like Togo.

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