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AMOS BENNETT reports on Mercy Ship’s work in West Africa…

Six-month-old Josephine was born with congenital cataracts in both eyes. She was one of the youngest cataract patients treated by volunteers serving with Mercy Ships in West Africa.

Being blind in any country is challenging, but even more so in West Africa where access to quality eye care is practically non-existent. There are no special schools for blind people, no guide dogs, and no help for people with this disability. With such obstacles, Josephine faced a dark and difficult future.


SEEING AFRESH: Six-month old Josephine Sumo, blind since birth, with her mother Annie.

But Josephine’s mother Annie heard about the big hospital ship where people would be able to help. They arrived at the Mercy Ship Africa Mercy with a fresh sense of hope. Josephine received free surgery to remove the cataracts. Dr Glenn Strauss, a volunteer eye surgeon, believed that if the girl’s cataracts were not removed quickly, the prospect of permanent blindness was certain. Her mother wants Josephine to go to school and study to become a doctor.

In Benin, a Mercy Ships eye team became aware of a family with three children, all blind as a result of cataracts in both eyes. The children were aged one, three and seven.

The oldest could see a little in one eye if he held something within several centimetres from the side of his right eye. All three came onboard the Africa Mercy, where it was considered the best hope for good sight was with the one-year-old, while the seven-year-old was approaching the time when even with cataracts being removed it might be too late.

When the patches were removed the day following surgery, all was calm. The eldest did his ‘blind thing’ of feeling and putting things close to his eye. Then he walked over to the surgeon and took something out of his hand – he obviously could see. The mother of the three was very pleased, but did admit that when all three children were blind she knew what to expect. But now with sight they get into everything.

This year, sight will be returned to 3,000 Beninese people suffering from blindness. In addition to the surgical procedures, the Mercy Ships eye team will evaluate and treat 20,000 patients for basic eye disease and distribute 5,000 pairs of sunglasses and 5,000 pairs of reading glasses.

While providing thousands of free surgeries to the people of Benin during this year’s field assignment, Mercy Ships is also offering training to local surgeons through a $50,000 Alcon Foundation grant. Ophthalmologists are receiving training in Dr Strauss’s sutureless cataract surgery, a method developed specifically for Africa. 

“Local surgeons have been about 15 to 20 years behind what is happening in the rest of the world,” he says.


LOOKING FORWARD: Beninese mother with her three children born with congenital cataracts.

Another feature of the eye team’s project this year involves consideration of plans for a possible training program that would allow for South African ophthalmologists to train onboard the Africa Mercy.

The National Director of Mercy Ships South Africa, South African health officers and a representative of the South African Fred Hollows Foundation visited the hospital ship recently to consider possible plans for a training program.

It is estimated that more than 160,000 people in South Africa have cataracts. Out of the nation’s 275 practising ophthalmologists, only 27 work in the public sector and the need for free cataract surgeries and surgeons is significant. 

Mercy Vision South Africa hopes to address this need. With equipped clinics already in place, as well as support from local government and the Fred Hollows Foundation, the lack of trained and willing surgeons is the only limiting factor.

Mercy Ships is an international Christian charity that has operated hospital ships in developing nations since 1978. Following the example of Jesus, Mercy Ships brings hope and healing to the poor, mobilizing people and resources worldwide. 

The emphasis is on the needs of the world’s poorest nations in West Africa, where the hospital ship Africa Mercy provides the platform for services extending up to ten months at a time. Mercy Ships has 14 support offices around the world, including the Australian office at Caloundra, on the Queensland Sunshine Coast.


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