In the early 1970s renowned US eye specialist Dr David Paton travelled extensively throughout the developing world where he was shocked at how inadequate eye care services and ophthalmic teaching were having a serious impact on the welfare of millions of unnecessarily blind and visually impaired people.

In his quest to reverse this deficiency, Paton conceived the idea of a mobile teaching hospital where doctors, trained in the latest ophthalmic techniques, could pass on their surgical skills to counterparts in developing countries through hands-on training and lectures.

Fortunately Paton's vision was shared by United Airlines. Its donation in 1980 of a McDonnell Douglas DC-8 for conversion into a flying eye hospital spawned the Orbis international sight-saving charity. The newly equipped aircraft flew the first group of doctors and nurses to Panama two years later where the first Orbis medical programme was carried out.

A quarter of a century on, and now with a DC-10 flying hospital at the heart of the operation, Orbis has grown from a small charity teaching surgical skills in the developing world to a globally recognised development organisation embracing every aspect of blindness prevention and cure, now with an ambitious target of helping to eradicate unnecessary blindness by 2020.

The charity has transformed the lives of millions of blind and visually impaired people, while its persuasive global campaigns have heightened public awareness by reinforcing the shocking statistics that make uncomfortable reading.

There are nearly 37 million blind people worldwide and the problem is escalating

every five seconds one person in the world goes blind, yet three quarters of cases of blindness - equivalent to 28 million people - are preventable or curable with the medical techniques and treatment available in developed countries

Every year another 500,000 children lose their sight - one child every minute - and over 60% of those children die within two years

Around 90% of the world's blind live in developing countries - 60% in sub-Saharan Africa, China and India.

Cost of blindness

Orbis says most of those already blind or at risk of going blind do not have access to basic eye healthcare and treatment as there are too many pressures on a country's meagre coffers. Yet the financial cost of blindness to a country can run into billions of dollars. The World Bank has identified the prevention and treatment of childhood blindness as the most cost-effective heath intervention possible because the child grows up able to contribute to his or her community.

Since its launch, the Flying Eye Hospital has played an indispensable role in raising the much-needed funds for the charity and building relationships with governments in these developing countries.

"The Flying Eye Hospital is unique and therefore attracts huge interest from presidents and heads of state alike, in every country we visit," says Orbis UK fund-raising manager Georgina Howson. "Its high-profile image has allowed many governments to keep blindness prevention and treatment a high priority."

As a fully equipped, mobile teaching eye hospital complete with operating theatre,recovery room and state-of-the-art classroom, the DC-10 has helped to deliver for thecharity Paton's ambitious ophthalmic trainingobjectives.

During each Flying Eye Hospital program­me, Orbis uses a growing pool of leading international medical experts - it is estimated that around 90% of the world's prominent eye experts have signed-up - who volunteer their time to provide hands-on training in eye healthcare and surgical techniques to local doctors.

More than 4.4 million people have received direct medical treatment and more than 154,000 healthcare professionals across 85 countries have enhanced their skills through Orbis programmes, since its launch.


The Flying Eye Hospital logs around 100 flight hours a year and the DC-10 has flown around 1,350 flight hours since it entered service with the charity in 1992.

The DC-10 acquisition was funded through charitable donations but the hefty cost of keeping the aircraft operational is been met by Orbis' leading aviation sponsor FedEx. The two partners developed in August 2006 a new initiative called Delivering Sight Worldwide in which FedEx supports the charity by offering at no cost to Orbis to:

sponsor 10 medical training fellowships to ophthalmologists around the world over the next five years

sponsor several Flying Eye Hospital programmes

deliver medical supplies to Orbis programmes worldwide

manage the cost and completion of routine and critical maintenance procedures, including the annual safety checks for the Flying Eye Hospital to ensure its airworthiness, and provide spare aircraft components as needed

provide volunteer FedEx pilots for the Flying Eye Hospital and train all Orbis volunteer pilots.

United Airlines held the lead role in training crews and maintaining the aircraft until it retired its fleet of DC-10s in 2001. The airline continues to provide volunteer pilots and promote the charity.

Long-term solution

While the aircraft has played a pivotal role in the success of the charity, Howson says Orbis' strategy of focusing on training to empower nations to tackle problems on their own has been critical. "People are more likely to donate when they hear the money is being spent developing and sustaining a long-term solution to eliminate unnecessary blindness," she says.

This has been possible because of the Flying Eye Hospital programmes, which have enabled Orbis to cement strong relationships with countries across the developing world. These priceless bonds enabled the charity in the late 1990s to establish regional bases in the developing world in an attempt to reach communities in remote rural areas. Today offices have been set up in Bangladesh, China, Ethiopia, India and Vietnam, where Orbis is developing long-term partnerships with local governments and community leaders to establish primary eye care services that are affordable and accessible to all. "Educational campaigns are also running simultaneously to address eye care and blindness prevention," says Howson.

Around 50 eye-care centres are planned for India alone by 2010. "A relatively small investment can have a massive impact," she says. "There are 12 centres already up and running and 12 in development."

As Orbis continues to pursue its strategy to deliver programmes across the developing world in five key areas - childhood blindness, primary eye care, specialist training, advocacy and innovative projects - it is almost impossible to overstate the impact that this charity has had on people's lives.



Source: Flight International