Interview with Maria Arce Moreira

Maria Arce Moreira, the Executive Director for VOSH/International (Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity) is neither an optometrist nor a health care specialist, but she has always worked with global networks. Maria gravitates towards collaboration because she knows that if you connect people, you inevitably have more success.  With more than 20 years in the nonprofit and international NGO realm, she has enjoyed working with VOSH because it is a group of highly motivated, committed and knowledgeable people who are selfless and have clear and common goals.   Maria’s positivity is reflected in the drive of the VOSH community which believes that there is always the possibility to do more and more. What struck Megan Webber, Co-Founder of KnowtheGlow, as phenomenal is that all -apart from Maria- are volunteers but still manage to do an incredible amount of work. 

Maria was introduced to Megan by Dr. Jenn Viñola, an optometrist and professor at Manilla Central University who has a very active student chapter SVOSH-MCU.  Maria explained to Megan that VOSH works as a network so each of the 98 affiliated chapters are autonomous but abide by the same vision, values and code of conduct.  While VOSH/International provides policy and clinical recommendations to its chapters, they are autonomous in their operations and decision-making. Student chapters (SVOSH)  are a vibrant piece of the structure because these young future professionals are fertile ground to plant the interest and motivation to embrace the full scope of optometry as a key eye health profession with significant impact in people’s lives.  

The International SVOSH chapters are very proactive and willing to learn and share.  There is great potential to share clinical knowledge and expertise and engage in conversations and information exchange with these chapters so that the future professionals can benefit from this  awareness, knowledge and networking.  Maria told Megan that the level of optometry in the US is one of the highest in the world so there is a lot of knowledge that can be shared with other countries.  The more proactive chapters, like Jenn Viñola’s chapter at Manilla Central University, have actively participated in VOSH events enabling students to obtain clinical knowledge in addition to the awareness component.   

Maria shared with Megan a new program that was starting in Nicaragua by the SVOSH chapter led by Dr. Jairo Mercado that will be focusing on children’s vision. While it will not specifically target children under the age of 5, it will look to work with school-aged children.  The major component of this program is to generate evidence and awareness in the parent and teacher populations to identify and address eye conditions in children that could prevent their learning.  The evidence gathered is expected to help this chapter influence the development of a national plan on vision and eye health in Nicaragua.  Similar initiatives will take place in Mexico and Peru.  Once you generate awareness and people are better informed, children who need it can be identified and referred to the right medical support.  As Maria and Megan agreed, it is as important to not only build awareness but also to be sure there is then a pathway to care for the child.

Local student chapters like Dr. Viñola’s, offer clinics and have a regular connection with their community.  Maria believes that the KTG materials could be very useful to the optometry students because they are in constant contact with their communities and in a learning mode.  Of course, there is always the concern that once cases are identified, the right referral pathway should be known or be in place.    

Sadly, there are still some countries that do not recognize optometry as an autonomous health profession.  In many Latin American countries, there is still tension between optometry and ophthalmology and therefore it is difficult to have full collaboration.  However, Maria and Dr. Mercado believe that this obstacle can be addressed through collaborative research projects with younger generations of optometrists and ophthalmologists so they can start building bridges and working together.  Each profession needs to know where to refer to identifying the most suitable pathway for the patient.  

Maria hopes that through VOSH/I projects to garner the enthusiasm of these young generations who do not have the baggage of the older generation and hopes to collect good quality data.  “If you do not have data, then you do not know how to serve the patients based on the existing needs.  Our main objective is to generate evidence so that the government can take actions; so they fully understand the need for more optometrists to take care of the patients at the primary health care level.”  

In the future, VOSH will be focussing more on constructing sustainability and they already have a lot of strong positive momentum.  They want the humanitarian clinics to be sources of evidence that could be used to help with policy change. There will also be more of a focus on education as the younger generation has a new vision for their profession, more willingness to engage in research and to continue to build a network of schools that can learn from each other.   Maria is very optimistic about the future of vision care and better implementation of screening protocols across all ages and she looks forward to exploring ways to collaborate with KTG regarding awareness of preventable blindness and engaging all the components necessary to get the word out and find children before it is too late. As Dr. Viñola has so perfectly stated, “Prevention is always better than a cure.”