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Orbis' Doris Macharia, MD, reflects on where Orbis has been and the next 40 years to come


Orbis International celebrates 40 years of innovation this year, beginning in 1982 with their iconic flying eye hospital. Since their start, Orbis has continued their innovation, working to achieve sustainable and scalable impact in the countries where they work. Doris Macharia, MD, senior vice president of global programs with Orbis, talks with Ophthalmology Times' Sheryl Stevenson, reflecting on the last 40 years and what's to come.

Orbis International, an international nonprofit that aims to prevent and provide treatment for avoidable blindness, celebrates 40 years of innovation this year. Orbis began in 1982 with their iconic flying eye hospital, a fully accredited ophthalmic teaching hospital on board a plane. Since their start, Orbis has continued their innovation, working to achieve sustainable and scalable impact in the countries where they work.

Over the past four decades, Orbis has conducted tens of millions of eyes screenings and eye surgeries, as well as laser treatments for hundreds of thousands of patients. The organization has also trained hundreds of thousands of eye care professionals at all levels, including tens of thousands of medical doctors.

Orbis launched the flying eye hospital in 1982; in 1998, they launched their long-term country programs that are: training local eye care teams, building strong eye care systems, influencing national policies, and prioritizing eye care in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America.

Through these efforts, Orbis has supported the establishment and improvement of:

  • 60 tertiary hospitals
  • over 280 secondary eye hospitals
  • 800 primary eye care centers and health facilities
  • 160 vision centers
  • over 75 pediatric eye centers

The coronavirus pandemic was a pivotal moment for Orbis. The organization implemented a door-to-door service delivery to ensure the eye care needs of their communities were met.

In Ethiopia, Orbis successfully distributed millions of doses of antibiotics to fight trachoma, which is the leading cause of blindness to the people of Ethiopia. "Trachoma is highly contagious but is easily preventable and treatable with antibiotics if caught early," Macharia said. During the pandemic, Orbis took the mass drug administration of azithromycin door-to-door in Ethiopia, enabling the organization to reach over 12.3 million people in Ethiopia across 102 districts by the end of December 2021.

In Nepal, as schools were closed and children still needed eye screenings, with the help of an established government health workers group known as Nepal’s Female Community Health Volunteers (FCHVs), Orbis was able to ensure that children didn’t miss out on critical eye exams, as well as had the potential to reach children who live with disabilities, and who for other reasons may not be able to attend school.

“What we are really committed to doing is to ensure that we build health systems and support health systems, strengthening the countries where we work; ensuring that at the long-term capacities of local eye care professionals, doctors, ophthalmologists, optometrists, nurses, [and] community health care workers are enhanced,” Macharia said. “They will be the one to take ownership, they'll be the ones to lead, and they'll be the ones to ensure that we can expand even further than what we can.”

Looking ahead to the next 40 years, Macharia said that while she doesn't know exactly what it might look like, "I certainly know that we are going to cover even more."

"At the end of the day, it's just ensuring that we can be at the primary health care level," she said. "Really supporting communities and working closely and hand-in-hand with governments to support them and [to] deploy their operational plans, ensuring that they are meeting their targets and [achieving] impact."

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