The Chief Executive of The Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust (the Trust), Dr Astrid Bonfield CBE, yesterday met with representatives of the Ministry of Health, including Director of the Department of Corporate Services, Policy and Planning, Dr. Posikai Samuel Tapo, together with leading eye health experts and the World Health Organization’s Country Liaison Officer in Vanuatu, Dr Jacob Kool, to thank and commend them for their efforts to prevent blindness across Vanuatu.

In the Pacific, four out of five people who are blind don’t need to be. Many people across the region who are blind – or are at risk of blindness – are so because they don’t have access to affordable eye care. Since 2014, The Trust has been working with the Ministry of Health, The Fred Hollows Foundation NZ and The Fred Hollows Foundation to help bring affordable, quality eye care to people in Vanuatu, including those who live in the most remote of communities, who have – or are at risk of – diabetic retinopathy and trachoma.

Diabetic retinopathy, also referred to as diabetes eye disease, is a complication of diabetes and is the fastest growing cause of blindness globally. It occurs when poor control of blood sugar levels, high blood pressure and high lipid levels in the blood damage the blood vessels in the retina. If left untreated, it can lead to irreversible blindness.

Over half of all people with diabetes are unaware they have the condition, and by the time their vision deteriorates is it often too late for treatment. Regular screening, early treatment, and careful health management can reduce the risk of vision loss by 95% and is crucial to ensuring people with diabetes do not go blind when their sight could be saved.

Trachoma is the world’s leading infectious cause of blindness. It is easily spread from person to person and is most commonly found in poor, rural communities with limited access to clean water and sanitation. Repeated infection causes scar tissue to develop in the eyelid, and if left untreated the eyelashes eventually turn inward, scraping the surface of the eye. With every blink, people slowly and painfully lose their sight.

Vanuatu has a rapidly growing, mostly rural population spread over 80 islands which can make it very difficult for people to access health services. The Trust, together with its partner The Fred Hollows Foundation NZ, has worked with the Ministry of Health in Vanuatu to secure permanent changes to the health system by integrating screening and quality treatment for diabetic retinopathy into the care provided to people with diabetes. By making long-term improvements to the public health system, the Trust’s aim has been to protect the sight of all those who have diabetes in Vanuatu, as well as those at risk of developing the disease in the future.

Thanks to the commitment and leadership of the Ministry of Health, with support from the Trust’s funding, almost 1,300 people with diabetes have been screened for diabetic retinopathy and 244 people have now received treatment to prevent them from going blind.

In the fight against trachoma, working with The Fred Hollows Foundation, the Trust has helped to administer vital antibiotics to over 90% of the population to prevent the spread of infection. Vanuatu is now preparing its dossier for submission to the World Health Organization to validate the country as having eliminated trachoma entirely, meaning the population of Vanuatu will no longer be at risk of this painful, blinding disease. Vanuatu is the first country supported by the Trust’s programme to eliminate blinding trachoma in the Pacific to do so.

Vanuatu’s first ever ophthalmologist has also been trained through the Trust’s programme to treat people with diabetic eye disease. Dr Johnson Kasso, who was also present at yesterday’s meetings, graduated as a Consultant Ophthalmologist at the end of 2018, having gained his qualification from the Pacific Eye Institute in Fiji, which was established by The Fred Hollows Foundation NZ to provide accredited training for eye health workers from throughout the region. Dr Kasso has now returned home as the country’s first eye doctor. With Dr Kasso now able to provide vital eye screening and treatment, a recent $2.5 million upgrade and expansion of the National Eye Centre which was delivered by The Fred Hollows Foundation NZ, and the new diabetic retinopathy equipment donated by the Trust, the people of Vanuatu now have access to high-quality eye care and no longer need rely on outreach visits in order to get their eyes screened and treated.

Speaking about the work in Vanuatu, Dr Astrid Bonfield said it is truly remarkable all that Vanuatu has achieved over the past five year to bring quality eye care to the people who live scattered across its 83 islands – “I am so impressed with the progress I have seen here today. The efforts of the Ministry of Health and our partners to strengthen the health system and introduce local, quality services and improve eye care is ensuring people are protected against entirely avoidable forms of blindness each and every day.

“I am very grateful for the Ministry of Health’s engagement in and leadership of the Trust’s programme. When Commonwealth Heads of Government met in London last year, they agreed that they would take action towards achieving access to quality eye care for all. By both becoming a country that is internationally validated as trachoma-free and establishing services which provide quality eye care for all people with diabetes is a fantastic response by Vanuatu to that commitment — and one in which the Trust is very proud to have played a part. I am encouraged from all I’ve seen here today in Port Vila that the country’s commitment to ensuring people receive quality eye care will continue long into the future,” Dr Bonfield stated.

The Trust was established in 2012 to create a lasting legacy in honour of Her Majesty the Queen as Head of the Commonwealth. The work undertaken in Vanuatu since 2014 to prevent people from losing their sight to diabetes and trachoma now and in the future forms a core part of the Trust’s legacy.

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