ORBIS, a nonprofit, humanitarian organization dedicated to saving sight worldwide, prevents and treats blindness through hands-on training, public health education, improved access to quality eye care, and partnerships with local health care organizations, has announced that its Flying Eye hospital (FEH) program is visiting Kolkata, India for the fourth time to conduct an intensive and comprehensive training and skills exchange program aimed at strengthening ophthalmic services in Eastern and Northeast India. The FEH is a one-of-a-kind ophthalmic surgical and training center located within a DC-10 aircraft. ORBIS uses volunteer pilots from FedEx and United Airlines to transport the Flying Eye Hospital from one destination to the next.
Alongside its longtime sponsors, Fort Worth, Texas based Alcon, and FedEx, the ORBIS program is focused on improving the delivery of pediatric ophthalmic services in the region, including the development of a retinopathy of prematurity (ROP) referral system. The program will also help raise public attention on the eye care conditions and challenges faced in India.
The India Childhood Blindness Initiative (ICBI), a flagship program of ORBIS in India, was launched in 2002 to help ensure that India’s children have access to quality eye care for generations to come. In the last 10 years, 30 pediatric ophthalmology centers have been established across 17 states. The program is explained in this video:
“Through projects like the India Childhood Blindness Initiative and Save Your Sight campaign, ORBIS has been working to help improve the quality of ophthalmic services, influence policies and raise awareness around eye care conditions in India,” says Dr. Rahul Ali, ORBIS’s India Country Director. “ORBIS is grateful for the generous support of our sponsors Alcon and FedEx, and we thank them for helping us continue the work to eliminate avoidable blindness and deliver the highest standards of training.”
ORBIS works in some of the world’s most under-served areas to deliver sight by strengthening local eye care institutions, training staff, introducing ophthalmic technology, advocating for supportive policies and increasing public awareness about eye health. According to the World Health Organization, 285 million people worldwide are visually impaired — yet 80 percent suffer needlessly. Their blindness could have been prevented or treated. ORBIS is fighting blindness in developing countries, where 90 percent of the visually impaired reside, with long-term capacity building projects taking place in Bangladesh, Cameroon, China, Ethiopia, India, Jamaica, Nepal, Peru, Vietnam, South Africa and Zambia, staffed by local eye health professionals experienced in capacity building and global eye health care. Country offices oversee training in clinical and institutional development. Since 1982, ORBIS has carried out programs in 90 countries, enhanced the skills of more than 300,000 eye care professionals and provided treatment to more than 18.8 million blind and visually impaired people.
The ORBIS Flying Eye Hospital is the result of a unique and lasting alliance forged between the medical and aviation industries. The FEH’s specially designed and converted DC-10 aircraft –the world’s only airborne ophthalmic training facility — makes it possible for ORBIS to bring ophthalmic training to communities throughout the world. On board and in local hospitals, the ORBIS team and Volunteer Faculty provide hands-on training to local eye care professionals and convey the latest medical knowledge to treat patients and restore sight.
In the 48-seat classroom at the front of the plane, local eye healthcare professionals gather for lectures, discussions and live broadcasts of surgical procedures being performed in the Flying Eye Hospital operating room. If needed, surgeries can also be broadcast to an additional classroom outside the aircraft, for instance, at a nearby hospital. Large numbers of trainees observe the surgeries and ask questions of the operating surgeons via a two-way audio-visual system.
Prior to the start of a Flying Eye Hospital visit, ORBIS works with local partner hospitals to pre-select patients whose conditions are relevant to that program’s focus. Selected patients are then screened by ORBIS Volunteer Faculty members at the program site. Priority is given to children, individuals who are bilaterally blind, cannot afford to have the surgery otherwise, and represent good teaching cases. Local eye healthcare professionals maintain oversight of patients before, during and after surgery.
Alcon, which recently celebrated 30th years of partnership with ORBIS in restoring sight and eliminating preventable blindness across the globe, develops and manufactures medicines and devices to serve the full life cycle of eye care needs, offering a broad spectrum of surgical, pharmaceutical, and vision care products to treat many eye diseases and conditions including cataracts, glaucoma, age-related macular degeneration, retinal diseases, dry eye, eye infection and eye inflammation, ocular allergies, refractive errors, and other ocular health issues.
“For more than 30 years, Alcon has been a proud sponsor of the ORBIS Flying Eye Hospital medical programs. Our partnership with ORBIS is grounded in our shared vision of providing access to quality eye care around the world,” says Bettina Maunz, President of the Alcon Foundation. “Our support includes product and cash donations to perform cataract procedures as well as provide other much needed eye treatments, as well as Alcon volunteers who provide technical assistance on the ORBIS plane. The India program gives us the opportunity to partner with ORBIS and help deliver sustainable eye care solutions that can make a long-term impact and help prevent and treat blindness in West Bengal.”
In partnership with the Regional Institute of Ophthalmology, Susrut Eye Foundation and Research Center, Disha Eye Hospital and Sankara Nethralaya, the India Childhood Blindness Initiative and Save Your Sight program will provide Indian eye care professionals, including optometrists, nurses, anesthesiologists, and biomedical engineers, with continued medical education. Ophthalmologists will benefit from advanced subspecialty training in the areas of pediatric ophthalmology, glaucoma, neuro opthalmology, uveitis, cornea and surgical and medical retina.
As part of a global initiative to combat preventable and treatable blindness, and in support of ORBIS’s skills exchange program approach, Alcon has been a longtime sponsor of the Flying Eye Hospital programs and donates medical equipment, pharmaceuticals and supplies. In addition, Alcon biomedical engineers volunteer their time in India to provide technical assistance by working side-by-side with Indian biomedical technicians to share their skills on managing and maintaining the much needed ophthalmic equipment.
Founded in 1945 as a small ophthalmic shop in Fort Worth by two pharmacists, Robert Alexander and William Conner, Alcon began manufacturing specialty pharmaceutical products, and in 1950 produced its first two ophthalmic products: Ophthalzin for minor eye infections and Zincfrin for red, itchy eyes.
In 1959, Alcon opened an office in Canada, beginning its international operations that now numbers more than 24,000 associates in 75 countries. Three years later, the company began its patient assistance program, providing free medications to low-income glaucoma patients and supporting medical missions worldwide. In 1978, Alcon was acquired by Swiss food multinational Nestlé, which provided capital to accelerate Alcon’s global growth and manufacturing expansion.
Alcon began its ongoing partnership with ORBIS International to bring eye care services and health care provider training to impoverished communities worldwide in 1979, and in 1982 established the William C. Conner Research Center, helping the company significantly expand research into treatments for eye diseases and disorders. In 2008, Novartis purchased approximately 25 percent of Nestlé’s stake in Alcon, becoming its second largest shareholder. and retained the option to purchase the remaining 52 percent of Nestlé’s ownership of Alcon beginning in 2010, acquiring 100 percent ownership of Alcon two years later, with the merger uniting the strengths of Alcon, CIBA Vision, and Novartis Ophthalmics into one eye care business, making Alcon the second-largest division of Novartis with pro-forma sales of USD 10.2 billion in 2012.
Alcon has committed to a $5 billion investment to discover and develop new and innovative treatments for vision conditions and eye diseases. This represents the largest commitment to research and development in the eye care industry.
FedEx Corp. provides customers and businesses worldwide with a broad portfolio of transportation, e-commerce and business services. “FedEx is proud to be associated with ORBIS to continue its delivery of quality eye care training programs in India and beyond,” says David Canavan, vice president, Operations, FedEx India. “While this is the 18th time that the Flying Eye Hospital will be in India, FedEx has been a sponsor of the Flying Eye Hospital for more than 30 years. FedEx is the sole sponsor of “Delivering Sight Worldwide”, a global initiative that provides direct support for ORBIS programs. To support ORBIS in fighting avoidable blindness worldwide, our pilots volunteer to fly the ORBIS Flying Eye Hospital, our mechanics provide complimentary maintenance support and we transport medicines to hospital based programs.”
ORBIS International was established in the 1970s by Dr. David Paton, head of the ophthalmology department at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, who had traveled extensively throughout the developing world as a visiting faculty member becoming concerned over the state of eye care services and ophthalmic instruction in developing countries. In his travels, Dr. Paton observed that the high costs of tuition, international travel, and accommodations prevented most doctors and nurses in those countries from participating in overseas training programs. Even when they could afford to study abroad, their opportunity for direct clinical experience was limited because strict licensing laws often prevented them from performing surgery.
Dr. Paton’s solution was a mobile teaching hospital. With a fully equipped airplane, doctors trained in the latest ophthalmic techniques, including pediatric ophthalmology, could bring their surgical knowledge and skills to doctors in developing countries through hands-on training and lectures. Dr. Paton discussed his idea with his friend Betsy Trippe DeVecchi, who in turn sought the advice of her father, Pan American World Airways founder Juan Trippe. Mr. Trippe assembled a team to turn the idea into reality, inviting his daughter, Dr. Paton and A. L. (Al) Ueltschi, founder of FlightSafety International — the world’s largest provider of aviation services — to New York City to map out a plan, laying the foundation for ORBIS International.
Mr. Ueltschi took the lead in moving the concept forward, agreeing to secure a donated airplane, oversee its transformation into a flying eye hospital and continue the effort to keep it flying, calling every manufacturer and airline he knew in hopes of acquiring an airplane. Eddie Carlson, chairman of United Airlines, came through, agreeing to donate an out-of service and severely disabled short-body DC-8. The plane was in terrible condition, but a grant from USAID and funds from private donors enabled ORBIS to successfully convert the plane into a fully functional teaching eye hospital, and in 1982 it flew to Panama on its first training mission.
During its first two years of operation, ORBIS doctors, nurses and administrators flew to 24 countries and held programs emphasizing the hands-on transfer of surgical skills. In 1984, their itinerary included return visits to some of their prior host countries, where they evaluated previous programs and taught new skills and procedures. Flying Eye Hospital staff became more international, with staff and volunteers enlisting from numerous nations.
A Flying Eye Hospital program in Africa in 1984 marked a turning point in the evolution of ORBIS. In Malawi, where only two ophthalmologists served a population of seven million, ORBIS expanded its teaching program to include the 28 ophthalmology assistants and 12 nurses who played a major role in providing eye care services to the country’s population. Other professionals interested in preventing blindness in Africa, as well as other parts of the developing world, were intrigued by this program. As a result, ORBIS expanded its curriculum to include not only teaching surgical skills to ophthalmologists but also enhancing the skills of nurses, ophthalmic assistants, public health workers and biomedical engineers. This led to the creation of specialized training programs held aboard the Flying Eye Hospital to further meet the needs of each country’s ophthalmic community.
ORBIS’ first major program without the plane was a community eye care program in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 1985. Additional requests soon followed for “off the plane” surgical, nursing and biomedical engineering programs in countries previously visited by the ORBIS aircraft, in addition to those countries and local ophthalmic communities not easily accessible by plane. In 1986, ORBIS formally recognized the need to devote further attention to blindness prevention and public health. A community health department was created at ORBIS headquarters, and community eye care projects were established to implement a broad spectrum of activities to promote eye care as an integral part of overall health care.
As replacement parts for the aging DC-8 became more difficult and expensive to obtain, it became clear that a newer, larger aircraft was needed. In 1992, after a major fundraising appeal, ORBIS purchased a wide-body DC-10 to replace the DC-8. Within two years, ORBIS had converted the plane into an eye surgery hospital, with more than twice the interior space of the original DC-8. That summer, the newly renovated DC-10 took off on its inaugural mission to Beijing, China.
The Next Chapter: A New Generation Flying Eye Hospital
ORBIS has operated a Flying Eye Hospital since that old DC8 in 1982. After two decades of sterling service, the program’s current DC-10 hospital is being replaced by a MD-10 aircraft, donated by FedEx, which will bring many advantages to the fight against avoidable blindness, among them:
• Improved Design – The new Flying Eye Hospital will be an ideal marriage of aviation and medical technology. Housing medical and surgical infrastructure, its hospital suite will comprise nine customized modules similar to commercial cargo containers. The modular design will enable the hospital section to be removed from the aircraft for easy maintenance, and if necessary, replacement. On a technical basis alone, our pioneering module approach will save money, time and resources.
• Increased Performance – The next generation Flying Eye Hospital has increased performance over our current plane, which will reduce and in some cases, eliminate expensive and time-consuming fuel stops.
• Reduced Operating Cost – The next generation Flying Eye Hospital has an upgraded avionics package that requires only two pilots and less maintenance cost in the upkeep of the equipment in comparison to our current aircraft. This will in turn reduce, if not eliminate, the expense of crew training and spare parts to maintain the new aircraft. These savings translate into more money going directly to our work to eliminate avoidable blindness worldwide.
• Increased Audio Visual Capability – The next generation Flying Eye Hospital will leverage cutting edge broadcasting and online technology, ensuring more eye care professionals than ever before can access training from anywhere in the world.
Learn more about current progress on the next generation Flying Eye Hospital in a video highlighting the work being done the new MD-10 here:
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