Lifesavers have got to see

One third of lifesavers tested need glasses on Bangladesh’s most dangerous beach, showing years of neglect in eye health.

It could be any beach in Australia. At 8am, around 30 young men are preparing to patrol their beach and protect swimmers from the dangers of the sea.

But this is Cox’s Beach in Bangladesh, the longest continuous stretch of sand in the world. And rather than starting their day with a patrol, these young men are about to receive health care that they should have received years ago.

The Fred Hollows Foundation is holding eye examinations on the beach as part of a campaign to promote eye health in a region that has previously seen none.

These fit-looking lifesavers are the pride of their community and are looked up to by the young children who sing songs for money and sell seashells along the beach each day.

They are Bangladesh’s solution to a quiet epidemic of drowning - which is actually the greatest cause of death for children under six. But the men’s healthy appearance hides years of eye health neglect in this region.

The men are first taught about eye diseases, including the damage that can be caused by working with eyes unprotected from the bright sun, reflecting off the white sandy beach. They are shown pictures of conditions like cataract blindness, so that they can help identify people they come across in the community and refer them to the eye hospital. Finally, they are tested themselves for any existing eye problems.

We are shocked to find that about one third of the lifesavers tested on this day require glasses. Every day they use their eyes to protect thousands, but a large proportion of them have been suffering vision impairments.

In Australia, these conditions would have been picked up years ago when they were children, but in this area of Bangladesh, it’s uncommon to find anyone who has ever undergone an eye examination.

At the same screening on the same day, a group of beach cleaners also have their eyes tested. This time, more than half of the group are found to need glasses.

Within a day of the screening, the lifesavers receive their glasses - partly subsidised by The Foundation and partly bought by the men themselves to encourage a feeling of ownership and promote sustainable health systems. The men wear their glasses with pride and cannot believe the difference it makes as they keep watch over the swimmers from their tall watchtower.

Like most people that The Foundation is helping in Cox’s Bazar, the lifesavers are thrilled that help has finally arrived. At last there is eye care in their region and a place to go if they need help.  

The Foundation has targeted the lifesavers of Bangladesh for screening as part of a wider strategy to increase awareness about of eye health in the wider community. It’s about spreading a message  - that you can and should have your eyes tested.

The lifesavers are walking, talking billboards for the thousands of people who flock to the beach every day; that if you are having problems with your eyes, it’s more than likely your condition can be helped.

There are approximately 700,000 people in Bangladesh who are blind and the vast majority of these cases can be helped.

In 2012, The Foundation has doubled its eye health activities across the country, working in 14 of Bangladesh’s most underserviced provinces.

Find out more about our work in Bangladesh.  
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