Where these services are available, specialist eye referrals pose a major problem due to an overwhelmed public health sector. As a result, locals often face long waiting periods for appointments, or forgo eye examinations completely. This increases the risk of untreated early-stage eye pathology, progressive visual deterioration and, ultimately, blindness.
“Vision impairment is a challenge for any community; but for people who live in rural areas, blindness is a devastating handicap. For children, it can impact learning and development, while adults may struggle to earn an income, complete daily tasks, and care for their children. It has a ripple effect throughout families and the community as a whole,” says Professor John Gear, physician and medical director at Tshemba Foundation.
Until now, the non-profit’s ophthalmic efforts have focused on cataract surgery, running 10 to 15 cataract camps per year. Since 2014, they have successfully facilitated over 700 cataract surgeries. However, screenings in the community and clinics have indicated an urgent need for non-surgical interventions in diagnostics and treatment.
“Diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma and allergic keratoconjunctivitis are some of the main contributors to vision impairment. These can all be treated with short-term or chronic medication, or laser eye treatment, provided they are detected early,” says Gear.
As part of the blindness prevention programme, Tshemba Foundation is calling on ophthalmologists to volunteer their time and expertise for specialist diagnostic and treatment services at Tintswalo Hospital’s eye clinic. The non-profit is also recruiting volunteer optometrists to support their drive to prevent blindness in rural South Africa – with a particular focus on vision outreach in local schools.
“Offering these services to the Acornhoek community, and surrounding villages, will ensure earlier detection. It will also reduce travelling time and financial strain for patients, who are currently being referred to regional facilities that are long distances away, and often have to wait months for an appointment,” says Gear.
As a Tshemba volunteer, ophthalmologists and optometrists will receive complimentary, self-catering accommodation at the organisation’s unique Volunteer Centre in Moditlo Private Game Reserve. In addition to clinical interventions, volunteers can expect to manage acute referrals from Tintswalo Hospital and the surrounding clinics, as well as teaching and writing of foundational management protocols for common outpatient eye pathology.
“For volunteers, this presents an opportunity to gain invaluable eye pathology experience, and provide training to permanent medical staff at the hospital. In just two weeks, volunteers can positively impact an entire community of people for years to come,” says Gear.
To date, Tshemba Foundation has hosted 260 volunteers from around the world, to the benefit of over 28 000 patients. There are both long-term, and short-term opportunities available that can accommodate busy schedules, while still maximising the impact of volunteering at Tintswalo and the local clinics in the area. To find out more, visit www.tshembafoundation.org/volunteer-programme.