x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Flying eye hospital lands in Dubai

Noor Dubai gains momentum in drive to provide therapeutic, preventative and educational programmes to fight blindness.

Sheikh Majid bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and Geoffrey Holland, the Orbis International chief executive, chat at a press conference in Dubai this week.
Sheikh Majid bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and Geoffrey Holland, the Orbis International chief executive, chat at a press conference in Dubai this week.

DUBAI // The world's only flying eye hospital arrived in Dubai this week with medical practitioners and experts from around the world, as a new charity's campaign to deliver preventive eye care to one million visually impaired people gathers momentum. A week after Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Ruler of Dubai and Vice President of the UAE, announced his personally funded campaign for the world's visually impaired called Noor Dubai, the Orbis International DC-10 jet landed at Dubai International Airport to support the project.

Geoffrey Holland, chief executive of Orbis, said: "We have come to support Noor Dubai. We have been invited to be part of the programme and make long-term plans by discussing what can be done both in this region and internationally. "The flying eye hospital is just a small part of the work we do in developing countries around the world, some of which Noor Dubai has expressed interest in helping. The plane helps to make us visible and is also an important teaching tool."

The aircraft, which has travelled to more than 75 countries over the past 25 years, allows doctors, nurses and technicians from developing countries to work alongside Orbis's medical team in its operating, laser, sterilisation and recovery rooms. A 48-seat classroom allows practitioners to gather for lectures, discussions and live broadcasts of surgical procedures that are performed in the plane's operating room.

For those experts, Mr Holland said, the emphasis was not on the number of patients treated, but on teaching their techniques. Orbis can transmit live coverage of surgeries to hospitals within a few kilometres of the plane should more wish to observe. Long-term preventive treatment is the highest of Orbis's priorities, Mr Holland said. He spoke of the 10 million people in Ethiopia who suffer from trachoma, a highly contagious eye disease spread by flies and poor sanitary conditions.

"The only way to eradicate it is a mass programme of antibiotics," Mr Holland said. "It is an easy condition to treat but if it is not, then the eyelashes turn in towards the eye and begin to scrape the cornea. It is really painful and the only way to get the eyesight back is to get a corneal transplant. It particularly affects women and children." Orbis, which has trained more than 195,000 doctors and nurses, also has hopes to start small programmes at hospitals in Iraq, the Palestinian Territories and Jordan in the coming years.

The Orbis plane is scheduled to leave on Saturday. Other international specialists also are here to help. On Saturday, several doctors from Columbia University in New York arrived to set up a programme of surgical operations to enhance existing surgical eye procedures performed in UAE hospitals. A group of 45 visually impaired children four to 12 years old, from developing countries around the world were the first to benefit from Sheikh Mohammed's fund.

During the past five days, the children were screened by the Columbia ophthalmologists and five have undergone procedures to correct their sight. Dr Martin Lederman, a paediatric ophthalmologist at Columbia who volunteered his services, was one of the first to operate at Dubai Hospital. Speaking about the work, he said: "The children have misaligned vision. In layman's terms, they are cross-eyed.

"My job is to operate on them and repair them. Sometimes it is possible to fully repair them, other times their vision is partially returned. But almost always I can make them look directly at you again." Dr Lederman is also guiding the establishment of Noor Dubai's UAE knowledge-sharing programme. In the coming months more doctors - from Egypt, Germany and Columbia University - will arrive to take part.

"We have been here to get everything organised," Dr Lederman said. "Here in the UAE, the goal is to share technical skills and expertise. We have people come here with specific problems that require skills we want to teach. So we perform the procedure and at the same time teach." It is not a one-way process, Dr Lederman said, praising the team of Dubai doctors with whom he worked this week. "There is a marvellous team of ophthalmologists at Dubai Hospital," he said. "We have taught them our techniques and they have taught us theirs."

Noor Dubai was launched on Sept 3 by Sheikh Mohammed to reflect the spirit of Ramadan. In partnership with local and international organisations, including Lions Club International and Orbis, and executed by the Dubai Health Authority, Noor Dubai aims to provide therapeutic, preventive and educational programmes to treat and prevent blindness and visual impairment in developing countries. It also contributes to Vision 2020, the World Health Organisation's initiative to eliminate avoidable blindness.

Asked why he and so many others devote their free time to the cause, Dr Lederman said: "It is our passion. This is what we do. "In the US when I operate on a child, between me and them there is the hospital administration, the insurance companies and the state. "But here, when I operate on a child it is just between me, that child and God. It is pure." @email:loatway@thenational.ae