Exercise delivers eye care, medical capability in Africa
February 9, 2012
WASHINGTON (Feb. 8, 2012) -- A small-scale medical exercise under way in Tanzania is having a big impact on the local population and building strong bridges between the U.S. and Tanzanian militaries.
About 20 U.S. Soldiers from the active and reserve components and Army Department civilians are wrapping up a two-week medical readiness and training exercise in Tanzania's Zanzibar region, Army Reserve Capt. Kevin Czarkowski, who is leading the command element for the exercise, told American Forces Press Service.
The team, comprised of 16 medical personnel from throughout U.S. Army Medical Command and four members of the Army Reserve's 772nd Civil Support Team, is working with medical staff from the Tanzanian defense force and the country's health ministry, Czarkowski said.
The exercise, the first in a series of three U.S. Army Africa-sponsored events on the continent this year, is part of a broader series of military-to-military activities demonstrating strong partnerships between the United States and African nations, he said.
The Tanzanian exercise kicked into high gear quickly after the Jan. 30 opening ceremonies, with the Tanzanians initially observing the U.S. team as it screened and treated patients at the Zanzibar military hospital in Bububu before working with them side by side.
Together, they screened more than 3,000 people, distributed about 2,000 sets of eyeglasses and conducted about 230 cataract surgeries over an eight-day period, Czarkowski reported.
Col. (Dr.) Darrel "Casey" Carlton, an ophthalmologist serving as officer in charge of the exercise, said the mission is helping the Tanzanian health ministry reduce cataract blindness, because the number of patients it has accommodated far exceeds what host-nation ophthalmologists can handle.
With the last surgery completed today, post-operative checkups during the coming days will wrap up the exercise before the team returns home this weekend.
"What's amazing about this exercise is the impact it's had," Czarkowski said. "We have a very small footprint, but it has had a high payoff, because at the end of the day, we are changing lives."
Czarkowski shared the excitement of seeing someone regain eyesight within 24 to 48 hours of a relatively simple surgical procedure.
"During the post-operative procedure, when that patch comes off and the person is able to see, at that moment, you can tell it is a life-changing event for that individual," he said.
But Czarkowski, who works in his civilian capacity in Vicenza, Italy, as U.S. Army Africa's chief of exercises, said the impact goes far deeper.
U.S. medical personnel are getting valuable training as they operate in austere conditions unlike those they are accustomed to, he explained. Meanwhile, as they teach new cataract procedures to their Tanzanian counterparts, they will leave behind a new, lasting capability.
"This is building the capacity of the Africans, so they will be able to conduct this procedure in the future," Czarkowski said. "Ultimately, this is building the kind of capacity that enables Africans to solve African problems."
Dr. Fatma Omar, a cataract surgeon and national eye care coordinator for the Tanzanian health ministry in Zanzibar, said she was pleased with the helping hands and expertise the U.S. forces delivered.
"It's a special opportunity for them, and for us as well," she said. "It's an exchanging of ideas and techniques. We learn from each other."
Czarkowski said the mutual respect and understanding developed during the exercise lays a foundation for future cooperation, and that ultimately promotes regional security and stability.
"This is a great opportunity to partner with the Tanzania People's Defense Force and their Ministry of Health and an opportunity to build capacity and promote interoperability, and in the process, to change lives," he said.
(Army Sgt. Terysa King of U.S. Army Africa public affairs contributed to this article.)