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Cataract surgery restores sight to villagers in remote Indonesian Papua

24-11-2006 Feature

Nearly 50 villagers from the Papuan highlands in eastern Indonesia have recently undergone surgery, funded by the ICRC, to restore their sight. Suzanna Halsey, an interpreter for the ICRC, sent this report from the provincial capital, Jayapura.

  © ICRC    
  Wamena hospital: Suzanna Halsey with patients who have come for catarct surgery (Kwame is in the yellow shirt). For most of them it was a long and difficult journey from their remote villages.    
  © ICRC    
  Wamena hospital: a cataract patient is screened prior to his operation. Loss of sight due to cataracts is common in Indonesia's Papuan highlands, where access is difficult.    


  © ICRC    
  Wamena hospital: cataract surgery funded by ICRC. Nearly 50 patients were treated in a week, giving them back their sight and a role in their communities.    

Papua, a province in the easternmost part of Indonesia, is covered with thick vegetation, its interior accessed by few roads. Decades of internal disturbances have contributed to hindering the development of basic health care in many isolated districts. As a result, villagers do not always have easy access to the care they need.

This is especially true for people who suffer from chronic eye diseases, such as cataracts. The disease is prevalent in the province, and many sufferers lose their sight.

Kwame Karoba is a community leader from the village of Tiom in Jayawijaya regency (district). The 63-year-old lives with his extended family in a traditional house called a honai . He has been blind in both eyes for three years yet, in spite of this, he wants to continue contributing to village life.

In early November, Kwame's son Tinus heard a local radio report about a programme of free cataract operations at the general hospital in Wamena, the highlands district capital. He urged his father to go to Wamena immediately. At first Kwame was sceptical; but he was eventually persuaded and set out on the bumpy six-hour bus journey, with four of his friends who also suffered from eye diseases.

Kwame is one of 48 patients from the Jayawijaya, Tolikara and Yahukimo regencies to have had a cataract operation. They were carried out by a surgeon, based at a private hospital near the provincial capital of Jayapura, who has been involved in projects like this for several years.

The ICRC, which is seeking to develop useful projects for Papuans in the remote highlands areas, decided to fund the operations for a week, hoping to make up for the lack of medical outreach.

" For various reasons medical teams do not visit remote areas regularly, " says Stéphane Beytrison, in charge of the ICRC's work in the province. " This has contributed to a rise in chronic eye diseases that can lead to a loss of vision. Blindness is believed to be common in many highland villages, mainly due to cataracts. "

Many villagers, who have their own dialects, do not speak the Indonesian national language, so impromptu translators – medical staff or other villagers – were in great demand at the hospital. After the operation, Kwame wore a patch on the treated eye for a few days; he then had to let his eye adapt gradually to the sunlight before his sight was fully restored.

Another patient who underwent the cataract operation is 60-year-old Kelaus Tabuni, who has suffered from cataracts in both eyes for several years and has been completely blind for the past twelve months. Unable to continue his work as a farmer and herdsman, Kelaus now lives with his children. " I feel that I am a great burden, and have to ask for help for everything –washing, eating... I do not feel free, " he says.

For Kelaus, the long journey to Wamena from his village of Kuyawage involved travelling by plane, with the help of the local health service, along with 12 other villagers who were also suffering from cataracts. His enthusiasm was palpable, despite the rigours of his airborne expedition.

Both Kwame and Kelaus are delighted at the prospect of once again playing an active role in community life. Like the other patients, they will both have the opportunity of returning to Wamena to have surgery on the other eye. For its part, the ICRC considers the project a success and plans to fund another round of operations in 2007.