Millions of Ethiopians are blind or severely visually impaired

Millions of Ethiopians are blind or severely visually impaired. Many could be helped with routine operations – but there is a lack of doctors. Photographer Filippo Ferrara has visited an infirmary.

First a few figures: there are 140 ophthalmologists in Ethiopia. 112 million people live in the country.

Anyone with eye diseases in Ethiopia will almost certainly not get any help – purely arithmetically. According to the organization Orbis International, four million Ethiopians are blind or severely visually impaired.

In the East African country, people go blind even though they could easily be helped medically. There are two main diseases:

The Trachoma is a bacterial eye infection, which is counted by the World Health Organization to the neglected tropical diseases and unlike malaria or AIDS receives little attention. At an early stage, the trachoma can be cured with an antibiotic ointment. If left untreated, however, the eyelids keep turning inward, irritating the conjunctiva, and at some point the patient becomes blind. The disease is highly contagious, from person to person, but also through flies.

Cataracts, also known as “cataracts” – having them removed is a routine procedure in Europe. However, more than half of all blindness cases worldwide are due to cataracts.

The photographer Filippo Steven Ferrara left for Wasserà at the end of 2018, a village in the south of the Ethiopian countryside that Google Maps doesn’t know. Ferrara met people in the waiting rooms of the hospital wards who could hardly see anything. “People are queuing, some take day trips to see a doctor,” he says.

Once a month a doctor comes to the Wasserà infirmary, for example. In rural areas in particular, the number of doctors is much worse than in the big cities. Ferrara says the health stations in the villages are often run by Christian missions. Nuns took care of school education and basic medical care. “The missions partly take on the role of the state,” says the photographer.

Ferrara spent nine days at the infirmary in Wasserà, he also visited other wards, he talked to doctors, nurses and patients. More doctors and staff are needed, of course. But to get the trachoma under control, sewer systems, drinking water pipes and more awareness of hygiene are necessary, he says. Because people often get chlamydia, the bacteria that lead to trachomas, from the river: there they wash, there they get drinking water. Trachoma inflammation is also known colloquially as “river blindness”.

After returning from his research, Ferrara kept loose contact with some people he met in Wasserà. Now he tried to contact the doctors and nuns in the hospital wards again, without success: During the corona crisis, says the photographer, the few medical professionals are even more in demand than in normal times.