Volunteers a sight for sore eyes in Pacific

Plenty of New Zealanders will have heard of the Fred Hollows Foundation.

However, few outside of the eye health industry will be familiar with Voso, a smaller organisation also striving to restore sight to those faced with barriers like distance and poverty.

Volunteer Ophthalmic Services Overseas - to give Voso its full name - is a joint project of New Zealand optometrists and ophthalmologists run as a charitable trust, which sends on average six teams a year to various South Pacific destinations.

Their mission: To help eradicate preventable blindness with surgery, the examination and treatment of people in need of eye care and supplying those who need them with glasses and sunglasses.

Over two weeks each team screens around 1500 patients and performs 60 to 80 cataract operations, typically on patients who are totally blind.

"It's true we have a very low profile, but we are quite well known in the profession," says optometrist and Voso board member Ravi Dass, who was part of a five-man team who visited Tonga in October, accompanied by Waikato Times photographer Mark Taylor.

"We do have the same goals as the Fred Hollows Foundation. The Fred Hollows guys work to a fairly stringent business model to get what they have to do done. We try to work in collaboration with them, because we both have the same goals. It would be silly not to.

"We are a smaller, less well-advanced version of what they are. Their focus is on surgery. Ours is on surgery and glasses. When they head out to one of the Islands they take a shipping container full of advanced equipment with them. We basically just take ourselves.

"But on the other hand we do probably have less administrative costs. Any money we are donated or bequeathed goes straight into funding one of these trips."

Dr Dass was invited to join Voso by chairman Richard Johnson, whom he previously worked with in Wellington.

"He suggested I go along on some of the volunteer trips. It was also useful that I was from Fiji - I got out at the time of the first coup [in 1988] - and can speak Hindi."

While there were just as many cases of eye disease in the Islands as there were in other countries, the difference between there and places like New Zealand was in the availability of follow-up services for those being treated, he said.

"No one really relates sunglasses to eye damage and conditions like cataracts. Prevention really is the key," he said.

Dr Dass has now made eight trips to the Islands over the past 10 years.

"It's just a really nice thing to do for people. There's always something fun that happens or something really rewarding. On this last trip there were a couple of kids who we helped fix up for frames and lenses and that was really good to see what they got out of it. I guess I'm naturally drawn to that side of things."