Aust aid cuts to hit poor in Cambodia

Cuts to Australia's aid budget will hinder the Fred Hollows Foundation efforts to cure cataract blindness in countries like Cambodia.

Losing eight of your 12 children in Pol Pot's genocide should have been enough to fill more than one quota of life tragedies.

But fate had another cruel blow in store for Cambodian grandmother Pouy Lat.

The 78-year-old widow lived in darkness for a year following eye damage from decades of toil in rice paddies under a blistering sun.

Lat is one of an estimated 145,200 Cambodians with cataract blindness.

The Australian-based Fred Hollows Foundation is attempting to clear the backlog, performing 8,770 cataract removals in 2014.

But its work is under threat from the Abbott government's $11 billion cut to the foreign aid budget.

The foundation already has lost $1.9 million, forcing it to close operations in Indonesia, Vietnam and parts of Africa.

Potentially some of its work in Cambodia may have to be scaled back because six of out 10 operations there are funded by foreign aid.

But for now its business as usual at the Siem Reap eye hospital as Mrs Lat, dressed in orange surgical robes and a hair net, sits in a green waiting room.

The frustration of being hut-bound in her remote village, unable to visit the Buddhist pagoda to pray as well as days of hunger and frequent tumbles, trumps any fears.

Her ophthalmologist Kong Sunly, who has been practising for 20 years, examines Lat's eyes through the slit lamp machine and decides he can fix two in one go.

She is given a local anaesthetic and a compression weight is placed on her eyes to help speed up the numbing process.

Nurses in green scrubs and floral croc shoes guide her into the theatre and onto the operating table before sterilising her face.

They cover her with a sheet leaving her left eye exposed via a peep hole.

Sunly is ready behind his operating microscope, fashioning a fish hook implement to make incisions.

A special clamp holds her eye lids open and a camera beams a silvery cloudy eye onto a big screen.

He injects her eye with special elastic fluid and antibiotics to stave off infection and inflammation.

Within half an hour he removes a yellowed lens and carefully manoeuvres a new glass one in place.

No stitches are required.

After the second one is done, nurses put patches over Mrs Lat's eyes and lead her back to the hospital ward to recover.

The patches come off the next day and Mrs Lat smiles and laughs through a mouth of missing teeth.

An eye test shows she now has the vision of someone aged between 12 and 35 years.

Her daughter and full-time carer Saolam, 46, sighs with relief.

Now she will be able resume work as a cook at the village school, in exchange for 15kg of rice a month.

Pek Yeong, 61, also knows first hand how eye surgery can improve the livelihood of a family living in extreme poverty.

When she was blind she could only weave one bamboo basket a day which earns about $1.60.

Now she's able to do three.

The extra money means her orphaned granddaughters can continue to attend high school.

Her cataracts were removed in March after she walked eight kilometres with a walking stick along a highway bustling with tuk-tuks, cars and trucks, from her village to the eye hospital.

"It's like being born again," she told AAP through a translator.


* A cataract is a clouding of the normally clear lens of the eye

* 145,200 Cambodians with cataracts

* Cataract backlog 80,000

* Annual incidence 20,000

* Surgical rate must increase to 3000 per million people per year by 2020

* Cambodia needs to train 41 more ophthalmologists by 2020

* Fred Hollows Foundation screened 107,630 peoples' eyes in 2014

* Foundation performed 8770 cataract surgeries, trained 11 surgeons, 82 clinic staff and more than 5460 community health workers.

(Source: Fred Hollows Foundation and PBL Cambodia)

Source AAP

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