Eye banks throughout South Africa have seen a sharp decline in corneal donation in recent years and successful transplants utilising local corneas have declined by a staggering 88% since a peak in the early 2000s.
This was brought about by various factors, including improved legislative requirements, which in itself is a good thing, but have limited eye banks’ ability to obtain sufficient donor material. The resulting shortage of tissue has obliged local ophthalmic surgeons to reach out to international sources of corneas, which comes at a high financial cost and therefore excludes many ordinary citizens who can’t afford the luxury of an imported cornea.
But a recent move by the Eye Bank Foundation of South Africa and Bone SA, a registered non-profit organisation that distributes bone and tissue products to the medical fraternity, and a respected player in the tissue donation field, plans to change that reality.
Eye Bank Foundation of South Africa has signed a Memorandum of Agreement with Bone SA to take over the operational activities of the Eye Bank.
Under the agreement and in an effort to meet compliance requirements and increase productivity, the Eye Bank will cease operations and Bone SA will take over this critical responsibility. Going forward, Bone SA will be responsible for the procurement, processing, quality assurance and distribution of corneal and scleral tissue for transplantation across, mainly the Western Cape, but will also venture into other parts of South Africa, should cornea availability increase.
This incorporation signals a renewed effort to restore and preserve the eyesight of people across the country, while simultaneously promoting proactive eye care.
While the sourcing, recovery, processing and distribution of corneal material was the main drive behind the incorporation, efforts to raise awareness about corneal transplantation will also enjoy priority. This will happen through the training of hospital, forensic service and funeral home staff for potential donor referral. The partnership will follow established ethical practices and eye banking guidelines, and optimise corneal tissue utilisation through collaboration with other tissue banks in South Africa.
Bone SA is also committed to the establishment of a research capability for the implementation and development of new ophthalmic treatment options. This will happen through Vitanova, Bone SA’s new, state-of-the-art connective tissue bank in Cape Town, launched in mid-2021.
“This was a move on the part of both the Eye Bank and Bone SA. By joining efforts I believe we’re better suited to meet the corneal transplant needs of South Africans, including an education and awareness drive about eye care,” says Helena Heystek, interim managing director of Bone SA.
The typical patient needing a transplant has suffered damage to the cornea (the thin clear tissue layer which covers the coloured part of the eye) due to disease or accidental damage because of motorcycle or vehicle accidents, injury on duty or chemical burns to the eye, for example.
The procurement of eye tissue for transplant, which is exclusively sourced from deceased donors, is particularly challenging because it has to be recovered within 12 hours of death. “It is this challenging fact that requires us to reach out to healthcare facilities, forensic services and funeral homes across the Western Cape to assist in the task of identification and referral of potential donors,” says Heystek.
Corneal recovery and transplants are a delicate procedure performed by highly skilled surgeons. The procedure is very effective in repairing or restoring damaged eyesight. “The gift of sight is an extraordinary one and ensuring more people are able to receive that gift is of critical importance to Bone SA, as there is no alternative that is as effective as the real thing,” she added.
Gifting others with the joy of sight is as easy as registering with the Organ Donor Foundation of South Africa and ensuring your next of kin are aware of your wish to donate your organs and tissue after death.
Visit ODF.org.za for more information.
Issued by the Eye Bank Foundation/Bone SA