With a small population and shortage of doctors, Tonga relies on eye nurses and mid-level health workers to provide the majority of eye care services. This means people with more threatening eye health conditions must wait for visiting outreach teams to receive treatment, such as our Pacific outreach team based in Fiji.
Another threat to eye health in Tonga is the prevalence of diabetes. An estimated 19 percent of Tongans aged 25–64 are affected, the majority of whom have not been diagnosed. An unfortunate reality is that many patients who are aware they have diabetes don't realise it can lead to blindness.
We began sending outreach teams to Tonga in 2002 to provide eye care services, with the long-term goal of training a local Tongan eye care workforce to serve the needs of the population. Today there are six Foundation-trained eye nurses working in Tonga. We also have one doctor currently in training. Dr Duke Mataka will graduate next year and return to Tonga as a fully qualified eye doctor.
Eye care professionals in Tonga are employed by the local Ministry of Health, however our graduates often return home to find they don't have the equipment and clinical facilities they need to do their jobs. In 2017 we equipped the clinic in Tonga’s capital city of Nuku’alofa with essential eye care equipment. This means that when Dr Duke Mataka returns as a qualified eye doctor, the eye care team can operate at full capacity.
We're also working towards increasing awareness within the health sector of diabetes and its effects on the eye. This involves training health nurses to recognise and refer diabetic patients to an eye clinic. This is also important in reaching patients in remote villages who have limited access to eye care services.