Since 2018, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has been supporting a series of “eye camps” in Somalia, providing treatment and surgery for a range of eye conditions like cataracts. In many cases, people have regained their sight.
The eye camps are held at local medical centers and include screening, surgery, treatment, health education, and counseling. In addition to the services provided, student doctors are also trained in surgical techniques to create a sustainable and ongoing system of care.
“Eye problems, like many other health issues in Somalia, often go untreated,” said Dr. Fuad, MSF medical coordinator for Somalia. “Common conditions such as cataracts can lead to blindness, which often leads to losing one’s livelihood—a devastating outcome, especially in a country where many people face a daily struggle to survive due to internal conflict and chronic poverty. The relatively simple surgery [to correct this condition] has a huge impact on patients’ lives, improving their chances of living with dignity and health.”
A second chance at sight
Ahmed Mohamed Gurey, a 64-year-old grandfather from Hudur, has not been able to see very well for several years now. “I heard about the camp and came,” he said. “MSF operated on my eye and gave me back my sight. Before I could not see writing to read, but now I can even see the hairs on my arm.”
Dr. Said is an ophthalmologist in Burhakaba, where MSF is currently conducting a new eye camp. His team consists of one other ophthalmologist, two optometrists, and a number of opticians. So far, they’ve conducted 4,000 screenings for cataracts and other ocular diseases such as glaucoma.
“Many of our patients have bilateral cataracts,” said Dr. Said. “Most days, they just sit in their houses because they can’t see. After we operate, they’re shocked that they can see again. It’s amazing for all of us to witness those moments. Most of our cataract patients are elderly. Some have told us that for a decade or more they haven’t been able to see. You can’t see your children, you can’t see your grandchildren and then, all of a sudden, you can. It’s very special.”
Overcoming logistical hurdles
While some of these services are available in larger urban centers, due to security reasons and ongoing conflict people who live in more remote areas don’t have safe access to care.
Raho Ali Abdi is the mother of a nine-year-old girl who lost her sight when she was a baby.
“I walked for two days to get here and spent five days in Hudur waiting for the eye clinic to open,” she said. “My daughter can’t see when she is walking about and often gets hit by donkeys or walks into trees. She needs assistance to find her way around. But after being treated by MSF, she can see. She has glasses now and she can move around by herself.”
Setting up the camps involves multiple logistical hurdles. “There is a lot of preparation involved in running each camp,” said Dr. Fuad. “We have to manage the camps remotely and work with local partners due to security reasons. In the weeks before a camp, we will spread the word that an eye camp is opening. In the days leading up to it, we hold a range of clinics where people are screened to ascertain if they need surgery, glasses, further examination, or medical treatment.”
“Because of insecurity, we’ve had to come into the area discreetly and unnoticed,” said Dr. Said. We’re about a two hour drive from Baidoa and there are some difficult zones to traverse between there and here because of the security situation. We have to be very careful when we’re driving. When we finish the eye camp, we will pack up and be just as discreet when we leave.”
Despite the many difficulties involved, over 500 surgeries have been completed to date at this camp.
MSF also supports school children with free eye services, many of whom have never had an eye test before. In an eye camp run by MSF in the Hudur region of Somalia, more than 4,000 children had their eyes tested. Every child who needed glasses was provided with prescription lenses and standard plastic frames.
Nasteha Musdaf, a 16-year-old student, was struggling with her schooling due to eye-sight issues. “My eyes are often irritated,” she said. “The town is very dusty and windy and the dust and soil gets in your eyes. Whenever I try to read a book, my eyes tear up. I can’t concentrate when I’m meant to be reading and studying. I came to the camp looking for glasses and MSF helped me and I was charged nothing. Now I have glasses and I am very grateful.”
“What we’re doing here is not complicated but it’s completely transformative for the people treated,” said Doug Lau, MSF’s epidemiologist for the Somalia eye camps. “The camps really show that, in places where MSF teams have a longer-term presence, emergency medicine is not necessarily the only important health priority for the communities we work with. Not being able to see, not being able to work, not being able to leave your house is also devastating for people’s life and health.”
Over the past five years, MSF has supported eye camps in various regional cities, including Baidoa, Burhakaba, Galkayo, Garbaharey, Dhobley, Bardheere, Hudur, Kismayo, Luuq, and Mogadishu in Somalia and in Las Anod, Buhoodle, and Erigavo in Somaliland.
Fadumo Madey is a mother of six from Hudur town. She is 29 years old and hasn’t been able to see out of one eye since she was 22. “I had eye surgery yesterday and now I can see,” she said. “I thank MSF for the free eye surgery and I thank them for offering this to the community. I’ll tell other people with eye problems to come to the clinic so that they get the eye surgery they need.”
Along with eye camps in Somalia and Somaliland, MSF teams work in hospitals in Baidoa in South West State, Galkayo North in Puntland state, Galkayo South in Galmudug state, and in Somaliland in Las Anod and Hargeisa. The main focus of our medical activities are maternal, pediatric, and emergency care, nutritional support, and diagnosis and treatment of tuberculosis. MSF also runs mobile clinics to deliver care to people living in displacement camps and the surrounding communities.
In 2021, MSF teams provided around 154,814 medical consultations in Somalia, treated 12,509 children with malnutrition, delivered nearly 8,805 babies, and treated 74 patients with multidrug-resistant tuberculosis, among other activities. Last year, MSF supported two eye camps carrying out 4,022 consultations and 656 cataract surgeries, and prescribed glasses to 506 children. In 2022, MSF supported a total of five eye camps, with two currently underway.
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