‘For many it was the first time they’d had an eye examination’

LONG WAIT A queue of patients waiting for treatment at Debark in northern Ethiopia
LONG WAIT A queue of patients waiting for treatment at Debark in northern Ethiopia
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David Curwen, centre, hugs his mother with whom he wa sreunited. Completing the group is his brother Keith

THIS WEEK IN 1975: Reunited after 30 years – but only thanks to a kind stranger

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It’s not the way most people end up getting an eye test. But in a remote part of Ethiopia, a man with a loud speaker hails the imminent arrival of Mark Esbester and a team from the charity Vision Aid Overseas (VAO).

The public announcement certainly does the trick. When Mark and the volunteers arrive in the town of Debark the next day, a queue of people are already waiting to be seen by the outreach clinic.

CARE Mark Esbester working in the clinic

CARE Mark Esbester working in the clinic

Two days earlier they’d set up a clinic for people living high up in the Simien Mountains – and the people there were just as pleased to see them.

With access to eye care extremely limited in this part of the world, this was many people’s only chance to receive a pair of spectacles that could change their lives for the better.

Armed with thousands of pairs of donated glasses from the UK, the team set about matching people up with the correct prescription.

‘We were seeing patients who had come because of eye problems and where appropriate issuing spectacles,’ explains Mark, who runs Percy Harrison opticians in Elm Grove, Southsea.

‘We spent three days working up in the mountains and two days in Debark. We were able to help quite a lot of the people we saw.

‘For many of them it was probably the first time they had had an eye examination.

‘For a lot of people that might make the difference between being able to continue to do their work or not.

‘We saw a lot of office workers as well as people who just wanted to be able to read.’

Readers of The News rallied to a recent appeal and donated hundreds of pairs of old spectacles to VAO.

And in time, many of those pairs will end up at an outreach clinic like the one Mark was in charge of when he flew out to Ethiopia last month.

After sending the unwanted glasses to VAO’s headquarters in Crawley for sorting, the specs that are good enough to be reused go to a handful of UK prisons where inmates have been trained to use machines that can read lens prescriptions.

Metal frames that contain scratched lenses are melted down to raise cash, so nothing goes to waste.

All the pairs good enough to be of use to someone else get sent out with VAO volunteers to African countries including Zambia, Sierra Leone and Uganda.

For optometrist Mark, from Clanfield, it’s a great chance to do something useful for others and he’s grateful for all those who’ve rummaged through drawers and cupboards to unearth specs to donate in the past.

Mark spent the second week of his trip in the city of Gondar, training nurses and doctors in the eye hospital’s ophthalmology department.

While many of us probably take access to good eye care services for granted, there are millions of people who don’t have the same luxury.

‘There are probably about 670 million people in the world who can’t lead a normal life because of it and that’s quite a frightening number,’ says Mark.

‘As well as doing the outreach work there’s a huge move to do the training element, the idea being that we can teach local people to run eye testing clinics and then they are there doing it all the time which, from a sustainability point of view, is much better.

‘Setting up vision clinics will give people a place to go to have their eyes examined and have the prescriptions made up.

‘It’s good because that also provides work for local people.’

Good-quality spectacles are still needed all the time and people can drop spare pairs in to Mark at Percy Harrison.

He adds: ‘There is this huge need and Ethiopia has got fairly well organised now and has got a couple of ophthalmology courses going. The same thing is happening in Zambia.

‘But there are other countries where they don’t have any home-grown opthalmologists at all.

‘We have eye care for most people, so it’s good to be able to do something to help these people.’


Mark Esbester may have only just returned from one trip on behalf of Vision Aid Overseas – but he’s already got the next one pencilled in his diary.

In September, Mark will travel to Zambia to help set up a vision centre in a city in the northern province.

By providing the right equipment, VAO aims to give patients the chance to get a walk-in eye examination, purchase an affordable pair of glasses and be referred for further specialist care if necessary.

The vision centres must have trained personnel, facilities for eye tests to be conducted and an optical laboratory where glasses can be glazed.

Ultimately, the centres should become entirely self-sufficient and provide long-lasting access to eye care for their local communities.

‘We’ll ship out all the equipment some time in the next two to three months and when we get there we’ll supervise the installation of the equipment and also be doing training with local health workers,’ explains Mark.

‘So hopefully, by the time we leave, they will have got the basics.’


Vision Aid Overseas has been working in some of the world’s poorest communities for 27 years.

The non-government organisation is based in the UK and was formed in 1985 by a group of optometrists and opticians who were horrified by the plight of people in developing countries who were disabled or disadvantaged because of uncorrected refractive error.

By working in countries such as Ethiopia, Uganda and Malawi, VAO aims to improve access to eye care services.

Here are some key facts about their work:

· Ten per cent of the world’s population – that’s around 670 million people – are visually impaired because they can’t get the glasses they need.

· 153 million people cannot see properly because they are short or long-sighted – conditions that can easily be treated with a pair of prescription glasses.

· Over half a billion older people have blurred vision that effects close-work such as reading or sewing. This is due to ageing of the eye, a very normal process, and can easily be treated with reading glasses.

· As many as 13 million children around the world need glasses. Many of these children risk missing their education because they can’t see well enough to learn.

· The main reasons people cannot get glasses in low-and middle-income countries are: a lack of trained eye care professionals; inadequate facilities to get an eye test and to manufacture glasses; and because the high cost of glasses is often too expensive for the average citizen.

· At least 45 million people who need glasses are of working age; these people risk being unable to work because they cannot see well enough.

Every year people lose money and economies suffer because people are not able to work due to their poor vision. To find out more, log on to visionaidoverseas.org