Red Alert! 3 Million Nigerians May Go Blind

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Isaac Adewole, Nigeria’s health minister

The shortage of eye doctors, otherwise known as ophthalmologists, has put not fewer than three million Nigerians at the risk of blindness.

Findings revealed that most patients have to schedule meetings for up to three months in order to see an ophthalmologist. This delay, our findings showed, is caused by the fact that only about 300 ophthalmologists are available in the country, alongside 4,000 optometrists.

Optometrists are eye care specialists whose task primarily involves performing vision tests and prescribing and dispensing corrective lenses in treating certain eye abnormalities. A group of ophthalmologists had last year warned that more Nigerians could become blind if the federal government did not  increase its funding of the health sector. President of the group, Sebastian Nwosu, gave this warning during the group’s meeting in Kaduna State, organised to bring together eye specialists within and outside the country to share their experiences and brainstorm on effective eye care delivery in the country. Nwosu attributed  the high level of blindness in Nigeria to poor funding by government and inadequate manpower in the health sector, adding that the level of cataract cases was disturbing even when the disease was treatable. He warned that more Nigerians were likely to lose their sight if nothing was urgently done to address the challenges, even as he  urged the public to always go for routine eye screening and treatment to prevent permanent damage to the eyes. It was learnt that cataract and glaucoma are the major causes of blindness, but that while cataract is corrective with surgery, glaucoma is not, meaning that sufferers need to be diagnosed early in order to avoid going blind. Former president of the Nigeria Medical Association (NMA), Mike Ogirima, expressed concern over the poor budgetary allocation to the health sector and the “low number of opthalmologists in Nigeria.” He said that Nigeria had only about 300 ophthalmologists to care for its population, a number which he said was totally unacceptable if government must make progress in reducing blindness in the country. A survey by the National Blindness and Visual Impairment Survey (NBVIS)estimated that 1.13 million individuals aged 40 years and above in Nigeria were blind, with 2.7 million adults aged 40 years and above having  moderate visual impairment and an additional 400 adults that are visually impaired.

Findings revealed that the country does not have enough doctors to attend to these individuals and others who may come down with one eye ailment or the other. In an  exclusive interview, the president of the Nigeria Optometry Association, Dr Echendu Damian, pointed out that given the NBVIS report, it can be better imagined the magnitude of the number of those affected by blindness and visual impairment  in the country when it is extended to young people and children.

He lamented  that a situation where there are only about 4,000 optometrists to a population of about 190 million people was  inadequate, adding that quite a number of this grossly inadequate number of optometrists have left the country due to lack of employment opportunities. “Many optometrists have to find themselves in other countries because when they graduate, they cannot find employment as there are no vacancies for optometrists in the Federal Ministry of Health. I will actually commend the armed forces because some of our members who have been employed recently are those in the military.

“We are not given the opportunity in the Ministry of Health; there are no vacancies. Even when there are vacancies for other healthcare professionals, we are not, and even when our members graduate, they find it difficult to find a place for internship, which is very important because this is the period the person will be mentored in order to deliver better service. “Even when the circular has been sent to hospitals by the Federal Ministry of Health, they still find it difficult to allow optometrists to be employed as interns before they can even be employed fully,” he said. Dr Echendu accused the minister of health, Prof Isaac Adewole, of insincerity, saying since the issuance of the circular, the minister has not done anything to ensure that the circular is implemented.

He added that the ministry is supposed to ensure that healthcare professionals are employed to ensure that those that live in the rural areas have access to eye care. “I have written to the minister several times. That is why I said there has been a circular from the Federal Ministry of Health but it has not been fully implemented. Even a petition has even been written to the minister concerning the migration of Nigerian optometrists from the country to other countries. “The minister has directed that optometrists should be employed but nobody is doing that and the minister is not doing anything in order to ensure that this is implemented,” the NOA president said.

He also accused medical doctors of being part of their problem, saying “some people are there in the health institutions suppressing it; they don’t want optometrists to come into the system.” According to him, the dearth of optometrists in government healthcare facilities has also encouraged quacks to infiltrate the health subsector. He said, “When we don’t have the right people that are trained, of course, it will become a free ground for quacks and people who are not trained and that would eventually lead to loss of sight and vision impairment.” As a way of improving eye care across the country, Echendu advocated that at least two eye care professionals be deployed in each local government area, saying that would help in reducing the burden of blindness in the country.