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'All it took was a pair of glasses and she could go to school and learn'.

Optometrist Claire Whyman can remember seeing a schoolgirl in Africa who could only see inches from her nose - until she was given glasses.

Claire, 35, lives in Scotland with husbandMac, 37, a fish processor, and their twomonth-old daughter Christina, but for five years she's volunteered with Vision Aid Overseas.

And as she runs a small business she's been mentoring the new optometry pioneers in Africa. Eyecare services are improving and continuing to transform lives with the help of Vision Aid Overseas.

Claire said: "I had a teenage girl once still going to school and her prescription was about a minus 12. I don't know how she managed. All it took was a pair of glasses and she could go to school and properlyw learn.

"Most short-sighted people here might have a prescription of minus 2 or 3. But I've seen people in Ethiopia who are minus 15 or 20 and they can't see inches from their nose. "A lot of people can't read so well any more in their 40s. But in Africa if they're doing a job that requires being able to see up close then it can mean they can't provide for the family without glasses."

The charity's work has evolved over the years Claire has volunteered.

"When we first went out we would see hundreds of people every day who'd have an eye test and then go. It wasn't really linked with the local health authority to refer people with caratacts and eye disease," she explained.

"There were a lot of people we couldn't help. If someone had cataracts, we'd tell them, 'Next time you go to the capital go to hospital'. But most people couldn't afford the bus fair, it was disheartening. We knew someone might not have access to eyecare inbetween visits from the charity.

"Now in each country we're linked with local charities and health authorities. The charity don't provide so many direct eye exams, it's more about training local staff, it's more about sustainable eye care.

"The last few times I've been out in a mentoring role. Other volunteers lecture at university. In some of the countries, optometry is a very new thing so it's helping to develop university courses.

"Graduates in these countries have come out and have to find a job and start a business but they don't have anyone to follow as they're pioneers in their field. As I run a small opticians business in Scotland I've been out with a few others and worked side by side, doing all I can to help.

"I remember my very first project was a little girl of three who had cataracts in both eyes in a very remote area. It was congenital cataracts where in Scotland they'd be removed.

But there her parents assumed nothing could be done. She walked in with her mum. I'd like to think she's been helped since then, things have come along with eyecare in these countries.

"It's nice to see in Zambia they have created about 12 or 13 vision centres which employ local staff to provide eye exams and glasses so people can go every day and don't have to wait for foreigners coming out. It's nice to see local people getting the skill and jobs.

"We still go out to rural areas to offer a direct service. In some of these areas, we'll see people who have walked 50 km to get an eye test.

"We'll go out with local staff and mentor the optometrist, who has usually recently graduated, providing a bit of a workforce as well. But the main goal is sustainability. "


? Vision Aid has helped over one million patients since 1985
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:Sep 19, 2012
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