Spanish surgeons save Vietnamese eyes

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In 10 days of operations over the past two weeks, a team of Spanish surgeons saved the eyesight of more than 2,300 Vietnamese suffering from an eyelid parasite called trachoma

25 March 2008

HANOI - In 10 days of operations over the past two weeks, a team of Spanish surgeons saved the eyesight of more than 2,300 Vietnamese suffering from an eyelid parasite called trachoma, according to a press released issued Monday by the International Trachoma Initiative (ITI).

Sixteen doctors, most of them plastic surgeons, working in rural villages in northern Vietnam performed over a dozen operations per day each, said Dr Tomas Villacampa, the medical director of the team.

"There was a lot of emotion," said Villacampa. "We were starting at six in the morning, sometimes operating on the same table the villagers use for eating."

The doctors' mission was part of Vietnam's national plan to eliminate trachoma by the year 2010 and organised by ITI, a non-governmental organisation that focuses on fighting the parasite.

Trachoma is a contagious variety of Chlamydia found mainly in third-world countries in Asia and Africa. It infects the eyelids, causing them to swell and turn the eyelashes inwards, where they brush painfully against the cornea, ultimately causing blindness.

The parasite is easily treated with antibiotics, and a national prevention campaign in Vietnam has largely stamped it out. But tens of thousands of older Vietnamese suffer the after-effects of trachoma infections when they were younger, requiring eyelid surgery to correct the damage and prevent blindness.

Both the prevention campaign and the surgeons' mission receive funding from the Spanish branch of the Pfizer Foundation, the charitable arm of the multinational pharmaceutical corporation.

International health organizations often criticize interventions in which first-world doctors travelling to third-world countries for brief missions, since such programmes are not considered sustainable once the foreign doctors have left.

But Villacampa explained that in this case, the Spanish surgeons' mission was necessary because Vietnamese doctors decline to travel to the poor rural areas where patients live.

"There aren't enough ophthalmologists here, and they won't go to the communes," Villacampa said, using the Vietnamese term for a rural village.

Meanwhile, trachoma patients in rural areas are often too poor to afford the cost to travel to an urban centre for treatment. And since the national health system is confident of eliminating the disease in the next few years, a few such surgical missions may be all that is necessary.

Vietnam's public health system is generally considered good for a country at its level of economic development. Health stations are present in virtually every commune in the country, and Villacampa said the Spanish doctors had adopted Vietnamese techniques for the eyelid surgery they performed.

"I came to Vietnam two years ago to study the technique the Vietnamese doctors use, and then we trained the rest of the surgeons in Spain before coming here," Villacampa said. "The Vietnamese technique is better suited to the Asian eyelid, which is not the same as the European eyelid."

This was the second trachoma surgery mission the Spanish doctors have carried out in Vietnam. During the first, in 2007, they performed more than 1,000 operations.

ITI says that in one of the provinces the mission visited, Hai Duong, some 50 kilometres east of Hanoi, trachoma is now considered eradicated. The Pfizer Foundation plans to organise another surgical mission next year.

[Copyright dpa 2008]

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