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It was a day of celebration for five very special students. Watched by the President of Malawi, Joyce Banda, five of Malawi’s first optometrists graduated from the newly initiated four year BSc Degree at the Malawi School of Optometry at Mzuzu University.
Supported by the Mzuzu University, the Malawi College of Health Sciences (MCHS), the Brien Holden Vision Institute, Optometry Giving Sight and Sightsavers International, the School was established in 2008 to tackle the crisis of avoidable blindness and vision impairment in disadvantaged communities in Southern Africa – in support of the Vision 2020 initiative which aims to eliminate all avoidable blindness by the year 2020. Now that five optometrists have graduated, the future is looking bright for Malawi, and for those people who have had to live for years with avoidable blindness and vision impairment.
“Witnessing the graduation of the pioneer optometrist s of Malawi was a remarkably heartening experience,” said Dr. Luigi Bilotto, Director of Global Human Resource Development, Brien Holden Vision Institute. “The joy and sense of accomplishment of the new professionals, their entourage and everyone involved in the School of Optometry program was palpable. Highlighted by the presence of the President of Malawi, the momentous event, a ‘small’ step for the program is a ‘giant leap’ for the fight against avoidable blindness. I am proud to be part of such an accomplishment and applaud all involved,” he concluded.
“We are delighted that such a milestone has been achieved,” said Clive Miller, Global CEO of Optometry Giving Sight. “We aim to improve the quality of life of people who are needlessly blind or vision impaired simply because they do not have access to an eye exam and a pair of glasses. By supporting Schools of Optometry, we help provide the human resources necessary to achieve this aim. I am very proud of the five students that have graduated. They are now the pioneers of optometric eye care delivery in Malawi and can offer patients eye care services they have never had before,” he said.
The School of Optometry is growing at a substantial rate. From the eight initial students who enrolled in the program in 2009, the department has now grown to four lecturers and 31 students. These graduates now have the necessary skills to work within their communities and make a huge difference. They are now qualified to help alleviate the problems associated with lack of access to eye care in Malawi. It is hoped that many more optometrists will graduate from the school, and go forth to practice in the public health sector or return to the School to teach students.
Hilda Kazembe, Country Manager for Malawi, believes that the graduation has brought the Institute one step closer to achieving the goal of eliminating avoidable blindness. “Making eye care accessible worldwide is a long term commitment of the Institute, and training the necessary human resources to provide eye care services locally, is essential to achieving our objective,” she said.
Malawian Country Director of Sightsavers International, Agnes Makonda-Ridley believes that the partnership between Sightsavers, Optometry Giving Sight, the Institute and the University proved hugely powerful in effecting change in Malawi. “Sightsavers has committed itself to addressing the eye health workforce crisis in Africa by 2020, investing more year-on- year, and working to build new alliances to transcend existing bottlenecks,” she explained. “The recent graduation of the first ever group of five locally trained optometrists at Mzuzu University, Malawi, marks a historic achievement for Malawi and the partners that have supported the School of Optometry Program. The successful graduation demonstrates the power of partnerships as a catalyst for change.”
Avoidable blindness and vision impairment is a problem that affects many countries around the world. In fact, the World Health Organisation estimates that 80% of blindness can be prevented and 90% of visually impaired people live in developing countries. This suggests that there is indeed a link between avoidable blindness and poverty.
In developing communities, it is perceived that the blind are more likely to become poor, and the poor are more likely to become blind and become further entrapped in poverty. It is hoped that the program at the Malawi School of Optometry will produce a steady stream of optometrists to help alleviate this problem, by providing services that were previously not available.