The flying hospital treating blindness around the world

Preventable eye disease can be a life sentence in poor countries. Global charity Orbis aims to change that

From the outside, the liveried Boeing MD-10 aircraft parked on the tarmac looks like any other passenger plane. In fact, the jet is a 46-seat classroom, a cutting-edge operating theatre and features an audiovisual studio; one able to transmit live surgeries in 3D to watching doctors. It is the Orbis Flying Eye Hospital, and – since 1982 – it has helped global charity Orbis to travel the world, tackling preventable blindness in developing countries.

Globally, 285 million people are blind or visually impaired. Yet for 80 per cent of them, with treatment or surgery, their condition could have been avoided or cured. The plane’s high-tech fit-out delivers the relatively low-tech tools needed to tackle vision loss to some of the world’s poorest, most remote regions. Aided by volunteer doctors, anaesthetists and nurses, Orbis carries out hundreds of free eye surgeries a year, mainly in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

“We want to equip local doctors with the skills to treat their own patients"As importantly, Orbis collaborates with local doctors, nurses, eye care technicians and others to strengthen capacity in the 18 countries where it works. By sharing lectures, live surgeries and hands-on training, the charity aims to see eye care integrated into national health programmes in poor nations, where 90 per cent of the world’s 39 million blind people live.

“The old adage ‘teach a man to fish, and he will teach others to fish’ is very true,” says Robert Walters, the former chairman of Orbis UK, and a consultant ophthalmologist himself. Walters first volunteered with the charity in 1994, and remains a board trustee and Orbis’ special envoy to the Middle East.

“We want to equip local doctors with the skills to treat their own patients, so they’re able to meet local needs once we leave,” he explains.

In 2015, Orbis’ training missions reached more than 30,300 medical professionals, in areas ranging from paediatric ophthalmology, to treating cataracts and glaucoma. An online platform, Cybersight, means trainees can continue to seek advice and to access online courses once the programme has ended.

“The aim to teach the whole team involved in eye care – from prevention, to treatment – the most efficient methods to serve the population in their countries,” says Walters. “They are often desperate for support and education.”

The benefit stretches beyond individual patients. The most common surgery taught by Orbis doctors is the removal of cataracts: the clouding of the eye’s lens. More than half of preventable blindness is caused by the ailment, yet it can be cured by surgery costing from as little as $10. Trachoma, an infectious disease that – left untreated – causes the eyelids to turn inward, can cost as little as a few dollars to treat in its early stages. Treatment can help entire families break out of the cycle of poverty.

“These patients may have become an economic burden on their families and communities because they aren’t able to drive, work, read or write,” Walters explains. “These interventions are life-changing.”

Orbis’ model hinges on partnership – with its volunteers, with other nonprofits, with governments, health ministries and local medical professionals. It has joined with the US-based Carter Center in a effort to eradicate trachoma worldwide – “something that is achievable in my lifetime,” says Walters – and, more recently, with the Qatar Fund for Development. The joint venture, called Qatar Creating Vision, will provide up to 5.5 million eye screenings and treatments to children across India and Bangladesh, aided by charity partners Sightsavers and BRAC.

It will also see the expansion of 19 paediatric eye centres in the two countries, and the creation of a specialist centre in Bangladesh to treat retinopathy of prematurity, a condition affecting premature babies. 

Funding for Orbis comes through cash from countries, governments and individual donors, and also as gifts in kind. The flying eye hospital was donated and fitted out by FedEx, while pharmaceutical giant Pfizer has donated more than $100m-worth of antibiotics globally for use in the treatment of trachoma.

“We gain hugely in terms of fundraising and clinical delivery when we partner,” says Walters. “Where once we might have had great intentions but poor focus, now there is tight strategic thinking. Orbis is run like an efficient business, because we owe it to our donors to ensure our funding is efficiently spent in the field. At all times, we keep the philanthropic goal of what we’re trying to achieve top of mind.”

Today, Orbis has some 200 permanent staff, but draws on the expertise of 400 volunteers during rotations in the field.

“In the field, we set out to train whole teams – from ophthalmologists and nurses, to mechanical engineers and hospital administrators. So we need the whole gamut of talent and equipment to deliver the right result,” Walters says. “Volunteers have to be broad based. They might be a good technician, but they need to be well rounded: prepared to work as a team, culturally aware, and able to engage with people of all different types and cultures. Not everyone can do it.”

For those who do, the experience can be transformative. Dr Ian Fleming is a UK-based anaesthetist who has previously volunteered with Orbis.

“The most striking thing is helping young children with bilateral cataracts, who have had poor vision from birth,” he told Philanthropy Age. “Quite often I don’t get to see them because I’m anaesthetising again the next day, but when I can be there to see the seals taken off for the first time, it is truly amazing. The look on their faces when they realise mum or dad is no longer this blurred shape – it’s phenomenal to watch.”