Rwanda: USAID funding is helping communities restore their eyesight

Vision for a Nation founder, James Chen, helps a patient put on glasses.

 

It all started as a mild itchy sensation. As the weeks passed, Dativa Mukagasana’s eyes grew not only teary, but irritated, leaving them sorer with every rub.

To soothe the inflammation, she bathed her eyes in cooled boiled water, but there was no improvement. The eyes instead became bloodshot and the lids swollen.

The resident of Tumba sector, Rulindo district, Southern Province, decided to buy antibiotic eye drops from a chemist, convinced this would solve the problem once and for all. But in the days that followed, it became much worse.

The eyes stung — the same sensation as when red pepper gets in one’s eyes. Before too long, her sight started to get blurred. It was at this point that family and friends asked her to seek medical help.

On consulting an ophthalmologist in Kigali, the country’s capital, Mukagasana realized that she suffered from allergic conjunctivitis, and because it was left untreated for a long time, it caused permanent damage to her cornea, leaving her sight permanently impaired.  Today, she relies on a white cane (a stick used by blind people) for mobility.

Statistics

Dativa’s story is not unusual. An estimated 2.5 people – a third of the world’s population – suffer from poor vision globally and access to eye care services is extremely limited in many countries.

In Rwanda, according to a 2016 World Health Organization (WHO) report, one out of 100 people is visually impaired. The Population and Housing census carried out in 2012, indicates that there are 57,000 blind people countrywide. This can partly be blamed on a human resources shortage, since the country has only 16 qualified ophthalmologists and 40 ophthalmic technicians.

The impacts of poor vision are cross-cutting. It affects people’s ability to learn, to work and to fulfill their potential. An estimated $202 billion of global productivity is lost each year because of poor vision.

Vision for a Nation Support

This motivated Vision for a Nation Foundation (VFAN), to develop a ground-breaking program to integrate primary eye care services at all 502 health centers in the country.

VFAN has pioneered several innovations in Rwanda, including a training course that enables general nurses to be trained in three days. They have trained over 2,700 nurses who are now providing basic treatment, eyeglasses and referrals for specialist treatment across the country.

The UK-based charity launched an outreach program in October 2015. This extends the reach of the health center based service to all of Rwanda’s 15,000 villages. Today, about 11,487 (76.58%) of all villages have been covered and 100% of villages will have been achieved by 2018. This has resulted in 1,049,157 screenings, 508,797 medications, 74,760 referrals and distribution of 58,709 pairs of glasses.

VFAN is planning to take its work and innovations to other low- and middle-income countries around the world over the next few years.

USAID Role 

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has played a vital role in supporting the program with a $395,000 grant, which is supporting outreach to up to 5,000 villages.

The grant – awarded in October 2016 – is funded through USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures (DIV) program.

DIV seeks to test and scale new and innovative solutions to major global challenges.

On providing the grant, Ann Mei Chang, USAID’s Chief Innovation Officer and Executive Director of the U.S. Global Development Lab, said: “DIV seeks fresh, new ideas that can deliver more impact for less money and can lead to sustainable development solutions. We are excited to work with these awardees to solve problems facing millions of people around the world.”

Abdallah Uwihoreye, VFAN’s Rwanda Country Director, expressed gratitude towards the support extended by USAID, saying, “We are extremely grateful to USAID for their fantastic support of our innovative national eye health program. It is helping us to reach more communities and people in need, and is supporting Rwanda’s long-term development.”

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