In Tanzania, as much as it is in most societies in the world, eye-health isn’t alarming as far as general body health is concerned.
And in other communities, especially in Africa, people believe eye problems are genetic hence its treatment is sought through traditional healers.
In an interview with Your Health, an ophthalmologist with a passion and training in paediatric ophthalmology at the Comprehensive Community Based Rehabilitation in Tanzania (CCBRT), Dr Sonia Vaitha, 32, brings to light that the problem is well geared by the fact that eye-health simply enriches the quality of life rather than a death-or-life situation.
She explains that eye-care is not a health priority because one can afford to live with blindness but no one can bear the thought of losing their loved ones for preventable causes.
Nevertheless, eye health is as vital as other forms of health wellbeing in a human body because when compromised, its effects are also life threatening and can cause major career, social and psychological downfalls.
“When at a young age, a child’s abnormal eye experiences are ignored by parents to be medically attended, it can cause total sight failure. This will be at the cost of academic and social diminish of that child, hindering them to pursue their dreams in the future,” explains Dr Sonia.
She continues saying while each department at CCBRT treats hundreds of patients every year, no department sees more patients walk through its doors than the Eye Department, treating conditions such as cataract, one of the leading causes of blindness in the world, to glaucoma, an eye condition that can lead to loss of vision.
The path less travelled
“I spend two days in a week in clinics and spend three days in the operating theatre. Out of that, I carry out about 15 cataract surgeries (phacoemulsification) for adults in one of those days, and the remaining two days are fully dedicated to paediatric eye surgeries, with each list having minimum of 10 to 12 paediatric eye surgeries,” the eye specialist tells.
She continues saying that every year in the months of June and November, with her team, she travels over thousands of kilometres inlands of Tanzania to conduct a medical outreach initiative based in the Sekou Toure Regional Hospital in Mwanza.
Her journey began in 2012, when she realised she was passionate towards surgery specialisation upon pursuing her Master’s degree in ophthalmology at the Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences (Muhas). She graduated as an ophthalmologist but never had eyed to become an eye specialist for children.
During her service at CCBRT in 2014, the ophthalmology department requested her to focus on children and to further nurture and train her expertise in paediatric ophthalmology.
She then underwent a six-month intensive training on paediatric ophthalmology mentored by Dr Rita Ohri, a well-known senior ophthalmic surgeon based in London.
Later she was sent to the United Kingdom for practical studies at Moorfields Eye hospital and Great Ormond Street hospital for one month each.
“This is exactly what got my whole attention on children eye care speciality. With the trainings, grew my love to cure children’s eye disorders and help them in any possible way to prevent and recover vision disorders,” Dr Sonia on her growing passion.
Dr Sonia declares that there’s no other specialisation she would ever choose other than what she does.
The children’s eye clinic at CCBRT that operates on Tuesday and Thursday receives about 100 patients in a day that she attends without losing her excitement towards her job despite environmental and physical challenges.
“I meet several cases daily, minor and severe but there’s nothing as rewarding and encouraging as being part of my patients’ resurgence and improved life quality. Seeing them walk in sick and restless and walk out well, is very noble to me,” Dr Sonia speaks.
Challenges in the eye-health sector
Speaking on the awareness of eye health in the country, Dr Sonia reveals that most people aren’t aware that eye diseases are treatable. As a result, patients walk in when the problem is at its critical stage, which in most cases endangers healing possibilities.
Although she explains that apart from the intensive trainings she went through that enabled her to now operate as the children’s eye specialist, she doesn’t have formal academic accreditation but knows that her role in the field is significant.
Dr Sonia adds on another challenge of patients being unable to afford medication expenses.
“Sometimes patients don’t come back for further treatment and assessment because they lack transport fare, and due to such issues the medication isn’t effective as it should be, which literally affects curative,” she explains.
Balancing family and profession
Dr Sonia is married to a fellow doctor Phuljit Patowary, an orthopaedic surgeon working at the Regency hospital. They met at MUHAS and got married when they were both pursuing their Masters’ degree. She explains that their relationship to be a balanced type as they don’t mix their personal life with professional life.
“We perform chores together, go out frequently, spend our weekends together just like other regular couples but in case of emergencies and one is called to the hospital during our personal time, we’re flexible. We’ve understood that it’s a human being’s life at stake so we’ve learned to live with it,” Dr Sonia tells.
She adds that being married to a fellow doctor has been wonderful because they understand each other’s struggles encountered in their daily activities and in the profession as whole, and hence they can easily help each other.