Sight problems seen escalating

A YOUNG boy leads a man impacted by river blindness.


DISEASES that affect sight are numerous and many appear in some families in Tanzania. Some of these ailments afflict children under the age of five years. The situation is so bad in some regions that a public awareness initiative is required.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has reported that nearly one per cent of the country’s population live with sight problems.

Consequently, it is assumed that out of a population tipping 55 million people, nearly 500,000 Tanzanians live with mild or critical eye problems. Although blindness appears to a lesser health problem in Tanzania, there is a growing population of people with visual impairments.

The most critical cases are in the central zone. Indeed, the nation carries little responsibility in terms of blindness and visual impairment. Caring for a blind person is a monumental task. This task is even much greater if that person is a child.

Indeed, the predicament parents and guardians face when raising a blind child can be daunting. Adult blind persons are, however, more demanding. It is a situation that evokes a lot of compassion, for some children are born with visual impairments.

Unfortunately, in rural villages in Tanzania some blind people, including children, face great discrimination and abuse. Here blindness is a taboo and is seen as a result of a curse caused by bad customs such as witchcraft. Discrimination is so deeply rooted in some minds that people do not want even touch a disabled person. There remains, therefore, no help or respect for the blind or for the mothers who are seen to have caused the disability of their children.

In some cases, the father will shun the family after the birth of a blind child and will leave all responsibility to the mother. Blind children are marginalised and often grow up without education, skills or disability aids and with significantly poor health.

Many schools are not equipped or designed to teach disabled children. They do not have the specialist staff nor the necessary equipment, for example books in braille. Whatever the case, all parents, the government and society generally must protect the blind.

A common folklore in some Tanzanian tribal settings has it that a young man who was blind right from birth was accorded by Almighty God a brief moment, about two seconds, to see.

The man appraised his surroundings in a hurry with amazement bordering on awe. He was astonished to see a donkey grazing about three metres away from him. He was, indeed, overjoyed by what he saw. The object, which was busy eating grass, was stunningly beautiful.

Unfortunately, before he could apprehend the world around him, his blindness returned. He was told by those around him that he had just seen an animal called a donkey. The blind young man remarked that, that donkey was “stunningly beautiful.

One day the blind man heard some men talking about the beauty of a young woman. He asked rather impatiently: “Is the woman you are talking about as beautiful as the donkey I saw the other day?” Everyone was dismayed by this question. However, one of the men understood the blind man’s predicament. He answered: “Yes.” A child who is blind has a high degree of vision loss.

However, about 18 per cent of blind children are totally blind --most can distinguish between light and dark. Childhood blindness has an adverse effect on growth and development. Parents should make sure that severe visual impairment and blindness in infants is detected as early as possible to initiate treatment to prevent deep blindness (amblyopia). Although difficult, measurement of visual acuity of an infant is possible.

Screening in the first few weeks of life can prevent blindness. When a child is partially sighted, he has a less severe loss of vision. Partially sighted children can see more than blind children but less than good sighted children. We cannot read the minds of young children. If we could, there would be many surprises. A child who is born blind does not know what it is like to see.

Until he or she is old enough to begin to understand how other people do things, blindness seems normal. Like other children, blind children need to learn about appropriate and inappropriate behavior. This gets a little complicated sometimes because blind children should do some things differently.

For example, it is okay for a blind baby to feel your face, and they often do. But this becomes socially unacceptable later. Before school age a blind child needs to learn that it is not a good idea to put their hands all over other people.

This means parents have an extra responsibility in teaching social skills to their blind children as their ages advance. They need information even when they don’t ask for it and don’t take it. We must keep reminding our children when we see inappropriate behavior.

Therefore, a small child will not feel bad about blindness until someone teaches him or her directly or indirectly to feel bad. Blindness is something we explain little by little as a child progresses toward school-age.

Because nobody knows when a blind child really understands what blindness is, it should be discussed with him in a positive manner. Anything associated with blindness should also be approached positively. Learning to use a white cane or being able to read Braille can be an opportunity and a privilege, not a last resort. Braille is a special way for the blind to read with fingers.

These positive approaches inform the blind child that it is okay to be blind. Parents or guardians must not lament in the presence of their blind children about their inability to see. This conduct is likely to wreck the life of the already unfortunate child. So, it is not helpful to make comments such as: “I wish you could see the birds out the window,” Or “I wish you could see the pictures in this book.”

But we can say, “Do you hear the birds singing? They sound nice.” Or, “Do you hear that cat miaowing? It is hungry.” Parents and caretakers must share what they see with a blind child as a pleasant and normal part of communicating, not as a constant sad reminder of something a child is lacking.

It is not proper to ask a blind child: How much can you see? Can you count my fingers? Can you see that color? Can you see that cow? Sometimes the child tries to cooperate, and sometimes he doesn’t. Too much talk about what he can see will bore or confuse him. Why does it matter so much? Is the amount a child can see really the most interesting and important part of him?

Of course the doctor must do eye tests, and as a parent you want to have some idea of what your child can use vision to do, but this is enough. As mentioned before, blindness can be brought on by numerous disorders and accidents. Some people, including children, suffer from a non-fatal but highly repugnant eye ailment called trachoma trichiasis.

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