After finally achieving independence in 2002, Timor-Leste is Asia’s newest country. It’s a nation of poets, great craftsmanship and a culture imbued with Portuguese, Roman Catholic and Indonesian influence. While the road to recovery from years of violence and unrest will be long, what will get Timor-Leste through is the resilience and strength of its people.
A brief introduction to Timor-Leste
After years of Portuguese colonisation followed by Japanese occupation during World War II, Timor-Leste was then invaded by Indonesia within days of the Timorese declaration of independence. This occupation lasted from 1975 to 1999, during which the people of Timor-Leste suffered some of the worst atrocities of recent times. It’s estimated at least 100,000 people died in this period.
In subsequent years, Timor-Leste has been rebuilt with the help of the United Nations. However, the country is one of the poorest in Asia and suffers from great problems like high levels of poverty, poor infrastructure, drought and unemployment.
What are the eye health problems?
The decades of civil unrest destroyed important health infrastructure in Timor-Leste and there is an acute shortage of medical personnel. Since independence, the nation has worked hard to restore and improve health services and build medical infrastructure for the future.
Approximately 85 per cent of blindness in Timor-Leste is avoidable. Each year, around 2,000 people go blind from cataract and 40,000 people have poor vision that affects their daily lives. To treat and prevent these cases of blindness, there needs to be early treatment and access to quality eye care. Many people don’t seek treatment because they either can’t afford it, don’t know help exists or can’t access it. This means every year thousands of people lose their sight, making it harder to support themselves and their families and pushing them further into poverty. This is especially devastating when roughly seven in ten people live in rural, farming areas and absolutely need their vision to work.
The country has a major shortage of health professionals, including eye health workers. There is only one Timorese ophthalmologist working in Timor-Leste and many social services are yet to extend beyond the capital Dili.
The Foundation’s programs in Timor-Leste
Our program in Timor-Leste is managed by The Fred Hollows Foundation New Zealand, and the focal point is the purpose-built National Eye Centre, which opened in 2012 in Dili.
Funded by the Timor-Leste Ministry of Health, the Australian Government and The Fred Hollows Foundation, the centre is a far cry from the temporary operating theatre housed in a shipping container that preceded it.
The National Eye Centre houses the country’s first comprehensive eye care service and offers treatment to urban Timorese as well as to patients referred from district hospitals and rural clinics. It provides onsite clinical and professional training to local nurses and technicians and in district clinics through outreach.
The Centre’s surgical team also conducts regular screening and surgery outreaches at selected district hospitals to reach patients who cannot afford to travel to Dili.
The Foundation is collaborating with the Timor-Leste Ministry of Health, partners and other NGOs to better coordinate eye care services in the country. We’re also supporting the government in drawing up a new five-year National Eye Health Strategy.
As Fred did many years ago, The Foundation is concentrating on building a local workforce.
We’re doing this in Timor-Leste by teaching community workers about basic eye health and available treatments who then encourage remote and rural patients to attend mobile outreach services.
We’re also working to make sure women have equal access to services and employment in eye health. In 2010, there were more men working as eye care workers; today, it’s women who outnumber men.
We’re making significant progress
Thanks to some great work with our partners, we achieved a lot in 2017 in some of our key strategic areas.
- Trained 175 community health workers
- Supported one opthalmologist to complete their studies
- We successfully transitioned eye health programming to the Timor-Leste Government. The Ministry of Health and the Guido Valadares Hospital Nacional are now managing the National Eye Department and the wider program