Queen hears blind fisherman's heartbreaking story of being saved from dishonest customers to mark World Sight Day

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  • October 9, 2020
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The Queen has heard heart-warming stories of how eye treatments are changing lives thanks to a trust that was established in her name for the Diamond Jubilee.

Her Majesty, who herself had cataract surgery more than two years ago, was told about a blind fishmonger who was freed from dishonest customers after receiving sight-restoring operations.

She spent her first official engagement since returning to Windsor marking World Sight Day on Thursday by joining the Countess of Wessex on a video call with eye care specialists.

The Queen joined the call from the Oak Room at Windsor Castle in Wednesday afternoon after returning from her summer break at Balmoral and a three-week sojourn at Wood Farm with Prince Philip.

She said: “I’m glad that the Queen’s Jubilee has been able to do some good help for this particular thing of eye care.”

She spent her first official engagement since returning to Windsor marking World Sight Day (Robert Jobson)

Sophie, the Countess, told her: “I think that’s somehow underplaying it. It’s been incredible. And certainly seeing in countries like Malawi being really able to tackle the issue of blinding trachoma.

“Many of the African nations are actually very close to being able to declare that they have got on top of and are eliminating this disease.

“So it’s very exciting. The legacy of the fund will go on for many many years because it has also been able to highlight the problems and the importance of eye care to other governments who are actually placing it slightly further up the healthcare system than it has been before.”

The Queen spoke to experts who devote themselves to restoring sight and saving vision for some of the one billion people around the world with unresolved problems.

Six years ago governments and other donors from around the Commonwealth gave £100 million to the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust to mark her 60 years on the throne.

Much of that money was used to treat people with sight problems.

More than 22 million people in Africa and the Pacific received antibiotics to combat trachoma, a bacteria infection that causes blindness and results in the eyelids turning inwards, and thousands more had sight-saving surgery.

Sophie, who is global ambassador for the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness (IAPB) and patron of Vision 2020, told the Queen that saving sight was cheap.

Queen Elizabeth II – In pictures

She said: “The individual treatments can be very cost effective but life changing,” she said.

They spoke to three specialists from India, Sierra Leone, and Australia who are working with patients in their countries.

Jelikatu Mustapha, 33, one of only four ophthalmologists in Sierra Leone, thanked the Queen for the help that the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust gave her country.

She also told the Queen about her own family’s royal connection – her maternal grandfather represented the country’s paramount chiefs at independence talks at Lancaster House in London in 1960 and met the Queen a year later when she visited Sierra Leone for its independence celebrations.

She said: “He was part of the welcoming committee and I spent my childhood just looking up to this photo that he had, shaking hands with Your Majesty.

“It’s been on full display in my parents’ house since we were kids and it’s still there. It’s their one claim to fame. So I am very happy to add something to their claim to fame. So thank you very much for the opportunity.”

She gave the Queen an example of how her team’s work has changed the life of a patient, a 67-year-old woman who worked as a fishmonger.

Her cataracts had made her blind for four years and because she could not see her customers were regularly cheating her.

“A couple of weeks later she came back to us for follow up care with this huge bit of fish,” she said.

“In the last two weeks since her surgery she had made more money than she had made in the three months before her surgery.”

“Now because she could see and nobody could cheat her she was making so much more money.”

The Queen, who was wearing an Angela Kelly delphinium blue wool crepe dress trimmed with black velvet braid, asked how her work had been affected by Ebola, the virus that infected more than 14,000 in Sierra Leone between 2014 and 2016 and killed 3,955, more than in any other country.

“Well I was wondering, because I mean she must have experienced Ebola. So that must have been very difficult in Sierra Leone,“ the Queen said.

Ms Jelikatu told her the lessons learnt from Ebola had helped the West African country clamp down quickly on Covid-19 with bans on internal and foreign travel, meaning only a handful of people currently had the disease.

Sophie added: “Certainly the experience when I went to Sierra Leone was that they were very very conscious of having had to deal with the Ebola crisis.” She added: “It was very impressive to see that everything just immediately stepped up again.”

Vengadesen Natrajan, a patient care and quality manager at Aravind Eye Hospital in Pondicherry, India, said there was a six month backlog of eye cases in his country because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Queen said: “I was just thinking of the numbers in India. It must be a very big job.”

He told her: “We have the world largest number of blind people living here. So we need to have the high volume set up going on.

“So this can only be done through huge eye screening camps where we do a lot of outreach camps. So we have a big challenge ahead.”

Jennifer Merryweather, a senior policy advisor at the Fred Hollows Foundation, who works with indigenous Australians, also spoke to Her Majesty.

She said: “In Australia Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are three times more likely to experience blindness or vision loss than other Australians. But 90 per cent of this is actually preventable or treatable.”

She spoke about the challenges of treating people who are often hundreds of miles away from the nearest city and reminded the Queen that she must have seen the distances when she visited Darwin in 1963.

“Well I was wondering because of the distances some of the health care for eyes must be very difficult,” the Queen said.

Peter Holland, chief executive of the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness, who was also in on the call, said experts remained optimistic that blindness and other vision problems can be reduced dramatically in the coming years.

But he said Covid-19 had delayed treatment for many.

He told the Queen: “There are over a billion people worldwide who have sight loss because they don’t have access to the eye care they need.

“And of course this year it’s been particularly challenging because of Covid-19, which has meant that many people haven’t been able to get the sight-saving treatment that they need.”