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McMaster University partnership brings eye care to Indigenous children in northern communities

A new partnership between McMaster University and Weeneebayko Area Health Authority (WAHA) in northern Ontario is hoping to help improve eye care for Indigenous children and youth in northern communities.

Seven Indigenous communities part of ICEE project

Dr. Kourosh Sabri performing a refraction exam on a child in Moosonee. (WAHA Communications )

A new partnership between McMaster University and Weeneebayko Area Health Authority (WAHA) in northern Ontario is hoping to help improve eye care for Indigenous children and youth in northern communities.

The Indigenous Children Eye Examination (ICEE) Project aims to provide vision screenings and eye examinations for children and youth aged six months to 18 years old. The ultimate goal is to ensure the program can continue for years to come. 

The program is currently available to seven communities including Attawapiskat First Nation, Kashechewan First Nation and Moose Cree First Nation in Moose Factory. 

Dr. Kourosh Sabri, associate professor of surgery at McMaster and pediatric ophthalmologist at McMaster Children's Hospital, is the project lead for ICEE. He officially began operating the project in June 2020.

A local nurse speaks with an ophthalmologist. (WAHA Communications)

Eyeing the long-term

While the original plan was to offer in-person care, due to COVID-19 the project was forced to pivot to an online model.

For now, Sabri said a team of specialists have been meeting virtually with people from the community in need of eye exams, on a weekly basis.The virtual appointments are conducted with the help of a software developed by McMaster.  

To help make this project long-term, Sabri and his team are helping to train local health-care workers on vision care to be able to offer ongoing service,.

"We want to maintain a high standard, have a good support program for the nurses who are doing these things and be able to deliver, as you know, really good care."

For Dr. Sabri, this project has been a long time coming. Inspiration for the project, he said, came about on his first trip to the James Bay area about five or six years ago.

Me coming up once every three to four months and examining 10 to 15 children is gonna be a drop in the ocean.— Dr. Kourosh Sabri

While meeting with local doctors and healthcare workers, it became clear to him that offering eye exams and screenings would be beneficial. Sabri said he estimates there are between 5,000 and 6,000 children under the age of 16 living in communities along the James Bay Coast.

"Me coming up once every three to four months and examining 10 to 15 children is gonna be a drop in the ocean," he said.

Sabri wanted to make a program that could serve community for a longer period of time. It led him to begin applying for grants to ensure that would happen. The program is now funded through Indigenous Services Canada under Jordan's Principle.

Eliminating travel

Dr. Elaine Innes, chief of staff at WAHA, said so far, families are "very happy" the program is available to them. Prior to the program people who needed eye care would have to make the journey south.

For Innes personally, it's made life a bit easier for her and her grandson.

"My grandson, who's in my care, has an eye issue, and I've had to travel to Toronto because he requires specialized eye care," said Innes.

"Since this program has been in place you know, we haven't had to travel to Toronto. He's being followed through this eye program, which definitely makes things a lot easier."

Could you imagine if you had to travel to Toronto just to see an eye doctor? For some, it's a reality. A new project from McMaster University is bringing eye care to the far north through virtual eye exams. 6:03

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