Despite the WHO only having eight official health days mandated by the World Health Assembly, many others exist to promote important public health issues. A quick internet search indicates that there are more international health days than days in the year. Every day seems to have been claimed by either a disease, a sector or a profession. The situation gets worse when you consider themes other than health that are relevant to development. There are a host of other international days recognised by international bodies including United Nations, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and many others. It could be argued that people who like me work under the broad subject of development, are in danger of experiencing ‘international day fatigue’.
In October 2013, as part of the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) professional development scheme, I had the pleasure of working with the Mozambique Eyecare Project, which aims to address visual impairment and blindness through human resource development. One of the major outputs of the project is the development of a school of optometry at Universidade Lurio, Nampula – the first of its kind in Portuguese-speaking Africa. After completing four years of higher education, Mozambique’s first optometrists graduated on 20 October 2013, a few days after World Sight Day (see photo below).
World Sight Day is a vital advocacy tool, which improves awareness of blindness and visual impairment. It is also an opportunity for those working in the sector to celebrate their profession. Eye health workers from around the world use it as a chance to meet colleagues, exchange experiences and undertake activities to promote eye health. While the benefits to advocacy of having a focus day are clear, the benefits to the health professionals and students focused on that subject are arguably more subtle. These benefits should not be overlooked as I believe they are an important justification for why we still need international days.
From the conversations I have had with the optometry students at Universidade Lurio and the new optometrists who recently graduated, it is clear how much World Sight Day means to them. It improves morale and gives a sense of belonging to a greater cause. It gives the students and graduates alike the belief that they really are part of a global movement to end blindness and visual impairment. In a country like Mozambique, where the prevalence of blindness and visual impairment remains high, the students and graduates will need all the reassurance and support that they can get that the career they have chosen is worthy and will make a real difference to the lives of their fellow Mozambicans. World Sight Day also gives them the chance to interact with other eye health professionals in Mozambique including ophthalmologists and ophthalmic technicians. The relationships they build with people working in other eye health cadres will play a significant role in determining national and regional progress towards eradicating blindness and visual impairment.
While I was in Mozambique, it also happened to be World Teachers Day. From a conversation I had with a group of teachers sharing a celebratory lunch, it was clear that their day meant as much to them as World Sight Day means to the optometrists. It was a day that they can be proud of their profession and their daily achievements. So while those of us working in development may be fed up with there being more international days than days in the year, we would do well to remember the value of international days, not only in terms of advocacy, but also in terms of improved morale, professional development and community spirit.
By Stephen Thompson – HEART Research Officer and Dublin Institute of Technology post graduate student