August 2020


ASCRS Foundation update
COVID-19’s effects on international humanitarian eyecare

Patients waiting to be called in outdoor waiting room

Patients wearing masks in the waiting room
Source (all): University of Gondar


The ASCRS Foundation is proud of its work to eradicate preventable cataract blindness. Internationally, the Foundation fights cataract blindness with a focus on education to address the shortage of eye surgeons, creating world-class medical centers, such as the Sinskey Eye Institute in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and raising the local standards for patient care and physician training. With the current global pandemic, Barbara Erny, MD, the Foundation’s medical liaison for international programs, spoke about how COVID-19 is impacting humanitarian eyecare.

ASCRS Foundation: Dr. Erny, you frequently travel to Ethiopia; how has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your own travel plans?
Dr. Erny: In March, I had planned to fly to Ethiopia to participate in the ICO Board Review Course. As my departure date approached, I was feeling more and more uneasy about traveling but was determined to go. I struggled with my decision to let down Joe Licht, DO, the Emory fellow in Addis Ababa, who had done so much work to arrange the course. On Friday, March 13, I woke up to a slew of messages that the first case of the novel coronavirus was detected in Ethiopia and that the course was being called off. The doctors were jumping on a response, having learned a lesson from those countries slow to respond.

ASCRS Foundation: What were the consequences of this decision on the ICO Board Review Course and residents?
Dr. Erny: The ICO Board Review Course has been postponed (as well as the exam) and changed to an all online format. Professors have recorded their slide shows with narration, and all lectures are being uploaded to Cybersight with the aid of our partners at Orbis. These talks will be available for anyone to view, and residents in Rwanda and Ghana are already planning to watch them.

ASCRS Foundation: It sounds like the ICO Board Review Course was quick to move learning online for residents. The Foundation has six residency training locations in Ethiopia; what precautions are the ophthalmologists taking medically?
Dr. Erny: I connected with Liya Solomon, MD, at University of Gondar, to find out how that resident training location is doing. Dr. Solomon reported that the ophthalmologists are wearing N95 masks and goggles and have large cardboard shields on the slit lamps. Patients and family are required to wear face masks and maintain social distancing in the waiting areas. The ophthalmologists are doing emergency surgery and some elective cases; however, the junior residents have been relegated to the wet labs. Dr. Solomon said that most of the resident teaching is now online with an increased number of seminars, and some senior residents have changed their research projects to retrospective studies. At the hospital compound, there is a COVID-19 treatment center building next to the eye department. To avoid confusion for patients, the walkway is now guarded by federal police. The senior staff does what they can to minimize their exposure, and they all live inside the compound surrounding the hospital.

ASCRS Foundation: How would you describe life outside of the hospital for Ethiopians?
Dr. Erny: Dr. Solomon mentioned that public transportation is functional with fewer seats available, and there are fines for not complying with new rules, but people still go to markets and churches where social distancing is difficult. Unfortunately, Dr. Solomon reported that the cost of living is rising, with vegetables, fruit, and other staples being sold for double the previous price.

ASCRS Foundation: You visit the Sinskey Eye Institute often. It serves more than 24,000 patients annually; how are they
coping during this?
Dr. Erny: They are doing surgery occasionally for bilaterally blind, uniocular blind, and any urgent cases. While the staff continues to go to the clinic every weekday as usual, there is a growing concern about the rising numbers of COVID-19 and the number of medical personnel infected. Ayalew Allehone, MD, the senior ophthalmologist at Sinskey Eye Institute, who mentors rotating residents, said the hospital is taking measures against COVID-19. Dr. Allehone said, “We are managing our corridors by calling fewer patients at a time, keeping out relatives of patients unless they are needed, and ventilating our exam rooms by keeping windows wide open, using available PPE, and praying.”

ASCRS Foundation: Dr. Allehone and the staff at the Sinskey Eye Institute are being very proactive to protect staff and patients.
Dr. Erny: Yes, they are. I know this is all in addition to having patients wear masks and remain in an outdoor waiting area until called. With no sinks in the exam rooms, frequently hand sanitizing is key. With the heightened unease, Dr. Allehone was happy to have the support of the Foundation and the Himalayan Cataract Project (HCP). He said, “We have received the second round of PPE material donation. We are very grateful for the unwavering support from ASCRS and HCP.”
For more information on the Foundation’s international work, visit:


Jaya Minhas:

COVID-19’s effects on international humanitarian eyecare COVID-19’s effects on international humanitarian eyecare
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