Bridging the Visual Divide on Africa Day and Beyond

May 25 marks this year’s Africa Day, a day that celebrates unity across the continent. When it comes to driving a united effort around access to vision in Africa, EYElliance is one organization doing just that. We recently talked with Liz Smith, Co-Founder and Chief Executive, to learn more about EYElliance’s journey to address the issue of access to eyeglasses for the people of Liberia.

VII: How was EYElliance conceived? 

My co-founder, Dr. Jordan Kassalow and I saw an opportunity to learn from initiatives like the WHO’s African Programme for Onchocerciasis Control and apply a similar cross-sector approach to addressing uncorrected refractive error. We launched EYElliance in 2014 to bring new public and private sector actors to the solution to create equitable access to eyeglasses at global scale.

VII: How did your work take you to Liberia?

In September 2016, Jordan and I were privileged to meet with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia at the time. We highlighted the opportunity to maximize the investment the government had already made to establish a new tertiary eye care center with LV Prasad Eye Institute. Our recommendation included training community health workers to conduct basic vision screenings and identifying those individuals who needed glasses, and those who needed advanced treatment, who could be seen at the tertiary center.

President Sirleaf immediately recognized the value of this work. She challenged us to think bigger and consider screening Liberia’s school children. She said, “I have visited hundreds and hundreds of schools. Not once do I remember seeing a child in eyeglasses.”

Following this meeting, she requested that EYElliance convene a delegation of [International Non-Governmental Organizations] who had established best practices within their area of expertise to advise the government on a comprehensive eye health strategy. The result? A joint commitment from the Liberian Ministries of Health & Education, Sightsavers, LV Prasad Eye Institute, OneSight, Our Children’s Vision, 2.5 New Vision Generation, and New Sight Eye Center was made to create a countrywide continuum of care.

Supported by an operational plan advanced and driven by the new administration, the consortia are poised to deliver on the vision of Liberia’s national eye initiative. This multi-sector project exemplifies EYElliance’s approach – forging new collaborations across all sectors and deploying proven solutions at the systems level to accelerate impact – ultimately doing more collaboratively than can be done by any single actor.

Over the course of four years, the consortia will establish a comprehensive eye health network, connecting patients to quality eye care at the primary, secondary, and tertiary level. Implementation began in late 2018 and in 10 short months the consortia will have screened over 50,000 schoolchildren for vision problems.

VII: EYElliance’s approach is to work within existing systems in the country. How are you accomplishing that in Liberia?

EYElliance has supported the Ministries of Health and Education in creating policies that will ensure the long-term viability of the initiative including:

  • Aligning with the Student Wellbeing program in the current National Education Sector Plan;
  • Incorporating eye health into the new National School Health policy;
  • Integrating basic vision care into the 2022 National Community Health Services Policy, and
  • Incorporating School Eye Health in the 2022 National Education Sector Plan, which will provide the Minister of Education the opportunity to include ongoing operational expenses associated with School Eye Health into the budget.

VII: What is your biggest challenge with your work in Liberia?

Our primary challenge is the lack of trained eye health professionals to perform comprehensive eye exams and prescribe eyeglasses in schools. To solve the problem of URE in its entirety, it’s essential to invest in health systems’ strengthening and building the professional base of eye health practitioners.

In the interim, we can identify successful solutions and embed them into government systems, leveraging existing platforms to deliver quality eye care. We’re doing this by promoting proven models of eyeglasses delivery to Ministries of Health and Education, demonstrating the efficacy of those models on a national level through our Evidence Labs, and, embedding them into pre-existing systems in policy and practice.

EYElliance’s Evidence Labs are platforms for scalable learning informed by country-level practice. Through our Evidence Labs, we’re documenting challenges and opportunities in real to create open source tool kits for other organizations, institutions, and entrepreneurs to build new cross sector coalitions in new geographies.

VII: You’ve encountered many people whose lives were changed by a pair of eyeglasses. Does one come to mind in particular?

In 2018 during my first meeting with the newly-appointed Minister of Health, Minister Jallah, I shared how providing eyeglasses to children is a simple intervention that affords those with poor vision an equal opportunity to succeed in school. When I was finished, the Minister shared that she had also been one of those children struggling to see the blackboard in school. She told me how her blurry vision made it difficult to follow along in class and how she had trouble taking notes. Luckily, she was able to obtain a pair of glasses and avoided falling too far behind her classmates. Without those glasses it’s hard to imagine her pursuing her dreams of a college education and her ultimate appointment to one of the most important positions in the government.

VII: What makes you hopeful in the work you do?

I am hopeful about solving this problem because I know it’s possible. We have an affordable product, new product innovations, new technologies, low cost diagnostics, proven models, and scaling pathways. We recognize the tremendous opportunity to drive meaningful change by connecting and aligning a “bottom up” action agenda.

The Vision Impact Institute is a founding member of EYElliance.

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