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Meet Dr Dennis Williams - our new Vice President
We are delighted to announce the appointment of Dr Dennis Williams as Vice President of Sightsavers International. For over 20 years Dennis was the Director of Sightsavers' country office in Sierra Leone, including during the country's period of civil war. For much of this time Dennis was the only Sierra Leonean ophthalmologist. Dennis becomes our first Vice President who has worked in a country office and who has directly restored sight!
Sightsavers CEO Caroline Harper commented "This is a mark of the esteem in which we hold Dennis, and a recognition of the tremendous work he has done over many years, often in exceptionally difficult circumstances".
How do you feel about being appointed Vice President?
I feel very good indeed, it is a wonderful achievement. I really am very proud.
Why did you decide to become an ophthalmologist?
Before becoming an ophthalmologist I was an army medical officer. I had an uncle who was blinded by cataract when he was in his fifties. My uncle was an educated man living in Freetown and seeing how his blindness impacted on him made me wonder how those living in poverty were affected by blindness. It made me realise how poor eye care was in Sierra Leone and I saw how qualified doctors were not correctly diagnosing something as basic as cataract. This made me decide to specialise in ophthalmology.
What made you want to work for Sightsavers?
Sightsavers were one of two eye health charities working in Sierra Leone, the other being the German Christoffel-Blindenmission. Sightsavers were very good service providers, covering at least two thirds of the country. I appreciated the way that Sightsavers worked with the people in villages. Sightsavers don't work in isolation we work in partnership with local people and with the appropriate ministries, such as the social welfare and education ministries.
I am very happy working for Sightsavers, with their help Sierra Leoneans have managed to achieve many things they could not have had Sightsavers not been working with them. Even during the war years Sightsavers was one of the few international organisations that stayed to the end, and the only eye care provider to do so.
How did the conflict in Sierra Leone affect your work?
Our work was very seriously hit. We were based in Segbwema in eastern Sierra Leone approximately 100 miles from the border with Liberia. In spite of the conflict we carried on working there for as long as we could but we eventually had to leave. We relocated to the hospital in Bo, in central Sierra Leone, leaving a skeleton staff in Segbwema. The whole hospital in Bo was vandalised, with the exception of the eye care department, which became a sanctuary for around 500 people. This lasted for a very long time, weeks, maybe months.
The fighting affected the distribution of the drug Mectizan which is used in the prevention of river blindness. The drug can eventually make an individual resistant to river blindness but it needs to be taken for a period of 12 to 15 years for this to happen. This cycle was broken and after the war river blindness was, and still is a massive problem. The fighting meant that people with curable eye conditions were going blind avoidably because they could not get the treatment they needed. Cataract is the main cause of blindness and the war has created a backlog of thousands to be treated.
Has the situation improved since the conflict has ceased?
Yes, the situation has improved very much, however because of the war lots of activities came to a halt, especially training. This was worsened by the fact that many people left the country during the war so Sierra Leone has a massive personnel deficit, and desperately needs ophthalmic nurses. As I said before the war resulted in an increase of eye diseases which now need to be treated.
From your experience what are the main barriers to implementing successful eye health programmes in developing countries?
Bureaucracy by ministries is a major barrier. Ministry officials don't take eye care and the effect blindness has on people seriously. There is also the problem of logistics. We had to travel vast distances and the roads in Sierra Leone are very rugged so vehicles often got stuck. Many people live in isolated areas and by the time they get treatment a small infection, which could have been easily treated, can develop into something more serious.
How do you view the current global eye health situation, and what do you think about what is being done?
While there have been large strides in the last decade much more needs to be done. The rate of preventable blindness is still incredibly high in the developing world.