The man behind the National Eye Survey
“In a population survey that we conducted, the result shows that the number of blind people is in the thousands. But how many blind persons does it take to be considered one too many? The answer is simple: one is already too many,” begins Selayang Hospital ophthalmologist and committee member of the National Eye Survey (NES) Dr Mohamad Aziz Salowi. A passionate eye specialist who truly understands the hope, anger and anxiety that a blind person experiences, Aziz explains that his career decision was greatly inspired by his late mother who suffered from glaucoma. “My family was never aware of the symptoms until her sight was completely robbed. Although her vision was the price for our ignorance, I’d learnt and gained a lot from it. My mother taught me to listen, understand and see other people’s hardship from a different set of eyes. Honestly, there are many things we as sighted people take for granted. Thus, you can say I’m driven by one simple goal: to help people see.”
However, prevention is better than cure, and to strengthen the eye-health system, Aziz states that it’s all about raising the community’s access and awareness. To do that, the NES was created to conduct and obtain the estimated number of blind people in the country, the main causes of blindness and what prevents people from coming forward and getting themselves treated. “The first survey done in 1996 was not emphasised by zones, whereas, the NES 2 uses a world-standard methodology endorsed by the World Health Organisation (WHO). It ensures reliability and enables us to compare our results with that of other countries,” Aziz replies, noting that to become a trainer for the western Pacific region, he had to first attend training at the WHO regional headquarters in Manila.
“The key strength of the survey is its ability to show an internal comparison between different zones. Upon producing the estimated projected number of cataract backlog in the population, we also designed strategies for the intervention,” Aziz reveals, adding that the Cataract Finder Training Programme for the Community, Standardisation of Primary Eye Care and Standardisation of Cataract Surgery Techniques for Surgeons are a few of the programmes they are working on currently. Despite the initiatives to reach out to the community, there are still many barriers faced in increasing the public’s awareness. Common practices like poor contact lens care and badly monitored usage of steroid-contained eye drops can lead to glaucoma or corneal infections. Also, there is a need to look into the welfare of employees, whereby necessary safety tools should be provided by employers to prevent eye injuries. “We are doing our best to convey the message that if you don’t prepare yourself, the impact will be disastrous.”
The young specialist who supports from the field
As the youngest child and only daughter of Datuk Lau Kok Sing, Dr Lindfay Laura Lau’s humanitarian decision to tread her path in ophthalmology as a public servant was sealed after participating in the NES 2 in 2014. For an urban girl who had the privilege to study abroad since her adolescence, Lindfay’s experience dwelling in the rural areas of Sabah was an eye-opener, to say the least, and had shown her the tough conditions these people are living in.
“I was unprepared for the rigours of the NES. It was a physically demanding job whereby hours were spent literally on foot, moving under the oft-times sweltering heat. I had thought that the NES was a walk in the park being able to traipse two to three hours in a day to reach our mark. But in reality, each day of the NES was a demanding morning-till-evening affair,” she shares. In addition to that, she did not expect that the openness between urban and rural folks would have such a vast difference. “I’d imagined that people would be welcoming, allowing us to perform our survey, and help make the survey easy. However, I found out pretty early on that trust was a big issue with the urban respondents,” Lindfay replies, adding that it took a lot of smiling, coaxing and convincing to get them to answer her calls. “At one point, I felt like a door-to-door salesman plying my wares to uninterested customers.”
The experience, she continues, was, by and large, the complete opposite when she visited the rural villages. The warm welcome that the NES
“A good cataract surgeon is always a surgeon who sees beyond cataracts” – Dr Mohamad Aziz Salowi team had received overwhelmed her. “They welcomed us with open arms and were so appreciative of our efforts. In Pensiangan, one of the villages even held an impromptu party in our honour. Music was played and drinks were offered throughout that night. It led me to wonder whether modernism and advancements actually retard, to a certain degree, our humanity.”
Notably, there are limits to what the NES and related practitioners – surgeons, optometrists and paramedics – can do to strengthen Malaysia’s eye-health system. The public too can do greatly in assisting and fortifying the cause. “The number one problem I feel is the awareness of avoidable blindness. It’s still fairly poor and the public should further educate themselves on this problem and share the knowledge among family and friends,” Lindfay states, believing that only when there is a strong realisation on its enormity can everyone work together to overcome and correct the situation. Additionally, the young ophthalmologist, who is currently based in Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Kota Kinabalu, emphasises that education requires a coveted effort between those in power and the public. “On top of that, political will must run hand in hand with community empowerment. Only then can we hope to eradicate the condition in our country.”
For more information, you may reach Dr Mohamad Aziz Salowi @ firstname.lastname@example.org