DUBAI, UAE: The coronavirus pandemic has severely impacted patients who have been diagnosed with vision impairment. Thousands of patients in Palestine have not been seen by an ophthalmologist for more than five months, according to The Fred Hollows Foundation and St. John's Eye Hospital Group.
Access to eye health services has been seriously disrupted because of the lockdown, precautionary measures, and general closures. Almost 18,000 patients have been unable to access the services they need since April. In addition, more than 1,200 sight-saving surgical procedures have been cancelled.
The Fred Hollows Foundation’s Programs Executive Director Mr Jon Crail said COVID-19 is creating additional obstacles to people who are blind or have vision impairment in Palestine. This burden contributes negatively to patients’ existing psychological and physical well-being.
The St. John Eye Hospital Group’s Head of Development and Grants Mr David Dahdal, said some people needing urgent eyecare have not been able to undergo sight-saving surgery during the pandemic. Many people have missed their vital follow-up consultations, diagnoses and treatments.
“This means patients are at risk of irreversible sight loss or developing a serious visual impairment,” Mr. Dahdal added.
The St. John's Eye Hospital Group, the leading charitable provider of eyecare services in Palestine, has seen a dramatic decrease in the number of patients seeking treatment in East Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The hospital used to admit at least 7,000 patients who have eye problems on a monthly basis. When COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic in March, the number of patients dropped immediately to 46 percent in the following month. The hospital has also seen at least a 50% decrease in eye operations in April.
Despite its coordination efforts, the hospital struggled to provide patients who have critical eye problems access to medical services. The lack of health financing and movement restrictions associated with the COVID-19 crisis have severely added to the existing challenges.
Mr. Dahdal said the hospital needed to mobilize and keeps sufficient funds to continue its mission in helping people to see. Health financing is critical to ensure eyecare services are provided, and there is investment in healthcare workers and support infrastructure.
“With support from the Australian Government through the Australian NGO Cooperation Program (ANCP), funds were used to cover the cost of eye operations, medical procedures and treatments”, Mr Crail said.
“The big lesson of the pandemic should be the need to increase investment in global health and national health systems. By playing a role in helping communities to respond to COVID-19, The Fred Hollows Foundation will be strengthening health systems that can help ensure that pandemics like these can be better managed in future. A better health service will be better for eye health as well,” Mr Crail added.
“Last July we launched a one-year emergency campaign to treat the backlog of patients with blindness and visual impairment needing eyecare services caused by the pandemic health crisis,” Mr. Dahdal said. “We will mobilize financial and human resources in order to provide more than 25,500 eye operations and treatments, including 2,500 complicated surgeries.
In Palestine, at least 130,000 people aged 50 years and older are visually impaired. Cataract is the leading cause of vision loss, accounting for 38 percent of the country’s blindness.
Blindness and visual impairment is thought to be the third most prevalent disability category in Palestine, according to the 2011 national data.
The Fred Hollows Foundation and the St John of Jerusalem Eye Hospital Group has been working together since 2013.