Have you taken a moment to blink today? If you haven’t yet, please take a break to do so because apparently most of us are not blinking enough. Trust me, our guest, Ophthalmologist Dr Mulubwa Serenje approves this message. In fact, she warns that if we do not modify our behaviour, we shall fall prey to some upcoming eye epidemics. And these looming eye problems are going to be caused by our gadgets. Yep! Yet another self-inflicted human problem.

“There are two upcoming epidemics when it comes to the eye. One is computer vision syndrome because we are spending so much time on the computer in this generation. We’re always on the computer and on the phone. So, what is advisable is to not spend so much time staring at the screen for long periods of time. We understand that some people’s jobs depend on the computer but what is advisable is to take breaks, every 20 to 30 minutes, take your eyes off the screen and just look at something far away for a few seconds and then come back and continue with your work. That gives your eyes time to blink and to distribute the tears that are in the eye. Just something that simple and you avoid this computer vision syndrome. Most people complain that they always have a headache later in the day or that ‘my eyes feel very dry’, it is simply because you are not giving your eyes time to blink while you’re on that screen,” Dr Serenje says.

“The other thing is short sightedness; it is also becoming a global problem because we’re spending so much time with our gadgets and the brain adapts. It starts to think that for me, I just have to see things that are nearby and so the eyes become short sighted. What that means is that you’re able to see near but when you want to look far away, it is a problem for you because your eyes have gotten used to seeing things that are near.”

Dr Serenje also advises that we should let our offspring play in natural settings, rather than letting them spend substantial amounts of time on tablets or other screens. A common weakness in most of us is “I want my child to have everything I didn’t have growing up”, so we shower them with all manner of gadgets and other goodies. Yes, we’re living in a digital era and we don’t want our children being the only ‘cavemen’ among their friends, but we must at least set some schedules; mix in some classic play time in the mud, for the sake of balance and eye health.

Another thing Dr Serenje tips us to do is to avoid putting foreign objects into our eyes. In our communities, we all know that woman or that man who has a remedy for everything, they could even advise you to put some sugar in your eye – but be very weary. Seek medical attention for everything and avoid getting over the counter eye drops, even if a close relative used the exact same drug.

“Every person needs to have at least one eye check-up in their lifetime. Whether you feel your eyes have issues or they don’t, you need to check them at least once because there are certain diseases that you can only find upon examination. You will look normal for 10 to 15 years, by the time you’re coming to see the doctor, the disease has reached an advanced stage and some of these, there’s nothing much that we can do once we catch them at a later stage,” she says.

One common condition which Dr Serenje deals with on a regular basis is the cataract. In fact, she recently held an outreach programme to Mumbwa, financed by the Lions Aid Zambia (LIAZ), where she operated on 52, out of 120 people who were screened for cataracts.

“A cataract, in simple terms, people call it akasanga or akabale in local language. It’s a white opacity that you see in the centre of the eye. When I look at your eyes, I am not supposed to see anything white from where I am sitting but people are able to identify someone with a cataract because when they look into their eyes, they are able to see something white right in the centre. Mostly, it occurs in people who are over the age of 50, it is age related and it can also be caused by other things,” Dr Serenje says, adding that other predisposing factors are conditions like diabetes or injury.

So how would you know if you have a cataract? It’s quite simple, according to Dr Serenje’s description, the invisible ‘glass’ which you naturally have in your eye will just start to turn white, and maybe you’d be able to see it initially when you look at yourself in the mirror but eventually, it would be so bad you can’t see anything. The only thing you could be able to do, is to perceive that someone has switched on a light in the room. At this point, some family members might recommend a witchdoctor who is able to ‘dissolve’ the cataract, but Dr Serenje says this is fake news, “it can’t magically disappear”.

Dr Serenje says in Zambia, only specialist hospitals and some private facilities are able to operate on premature cataracts. Elsewhere, like in Mumbwa where she conducted some surgeries, only mature cataracts can be removed.

“There are different points at which you can intervene depending on the country and the type of surgery that you are going to use. So here in Zambia, we tend to operate on them when they are very white. But in other countries, even before that, they are still able to operate on them because of the equipment that is available out there. We also have that equipment here in Zambia, that is able to operate on a premature cataract, but those are found in specialised hospitals like UTH, private hospitals, Kitwe Central Hospital, places like that. So, in an outreach setting where you just go with an operating microscope and you are using a manual method of removing the cataract, it has to be really mature so that if everything goes well, the vision will improve, and if things don’t go well, you wouldn’t have worsened that person’s life, they will just remain the way they were before,” says Dr Serenje.

“The World Health Organisation (WHO), recommends that of all the surgeries that you perform, at least 80 percent of them, their vision should improve to a level where they are very happy with their vision and maybe 60 per cent or so should be able to improve, not to a level where they are very happy, but much better than it was before and then 5 to 10 percent are expected not to improve much because of either a complication of the surgery or maybe they had an underlying condition whereby even if you remove the cataract, they still have something else going on and their condition will not improve.”

And LIAZ executive director Nicholas Mutale says the Lions Club International has committed $700,000 to supporting blindness prevention interventions over the next three years.

“Our mandate as Lions Aid Zambia is to design projects, implement long term humanitarian services here in Zambia…You may know that Lions have had a flagship programme over the years of their existence which is the prevention of blindness and of course for those that already have blindness, treatment, and for those whose blindness cannot be reversed, we support rehabilitation so that they can be easily integrated into society and positively contribute within their communities and at a larger scale. So, we have a number of programmes that we have been supporting, we have been supporting a project in Luapula Province, covering eight districts, we also just started supporting a project in Central Province and the pictures that you saw most recently were from a district called Mumbwa, where we worked closely with the Ministry of Health and a team was in Mumbwa district conducting eye surgeries. So, the Central Province project covers over seven districts and we are now rolling out the second additional funding, we are committing an additional $200,000 so that we can cover the districts which were not covered in the initial project and this is Chitambo, Serenje, Ngabwe, Kapiri-Mposhi district, so the two projects put together, Lions Club International are committing over $700,000 over the next three years to support these interventions,” says Mutale.

“Some of the outputs of these projects is that we are training human resource specialised in eye health, we are providing equipment, instruments, drugs to enable the doctors themselves to provide a service and of course all these services that we provide are at no cost at all.”

Now, I saved one final tip from Dr Serenje for the very end because my wish is that it can be among your key take aways – she advises that we eat healthier diets. Now, this is vevry broad and we won’t get into it today but one thing I’ve learnt since I began to read more on health is that we are truly what we eat. What you put in your mouth could either reverse some chronic conditions or cause them. And for the next few weeks, this will be the focus of this column. Are all these dangerously addictive things we love to put in our mouths really food? And who came up with this concept of three meals a day? Anyway, we’ll discuss this next time, for now, let me go and do some blinking.

For more information on eye health and cataract surgery, check out my in-depth interview with Dr Serenje on my YouTube channel, Chat With Mukosha.

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