Madagascar: the eclipse story
On the 21st June 2001 there was a total solar eclipse in Madagascar. The path of totality traversed the Atlantic Ocean reaching land first in Angola, followed by Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and across southern Madagascar before it ended in the Indian Ocean. A total solar eclipse was visible in Madagascar at 4:28 pm. The track of totality extended at this time about 150 km wide and crossed the country from the west to the east. A partial solar eclipse was visible in the rest of Madagascar.
Cases of solar retinopathy are well documented, either in those people exposed for long periods of time to the sun, or those using magnification lenses (telescopes and binoculars).1 This results in a photochemical insult or true retinal burn to the retina; the latter having a poor prognosis for recovery.
In the six weeks leading up to the eclipse, we conducted a survey to gauge the viewpoints of the Malagasy people and the measures that had been instigated by the Malagasy government in order to reduce the incidence of eclipse related retino-pathy. The survey population consisted of clinic attenders at the eye department in Fianarantsoa which was adjacent to the area of eclipse totality and is the principal eye unit for the southern one third of the country. One hundred people were interviewed befere the event and those attending up to 4 months after with eclipse related problems were recorded.
We found that all 100 patients interviewed had received some information on the eclipse which came from a variety of sources (Table 1).
However, in the month preceding the eclipse, only 24% of people actually owned a pair of eclipse glasses. These glasses were mainly bought in the pharmacies or handed out at hospitals (Table 2).
Of the 74 patients who did not own a pair of eclipse glasses, 14 patients were waiting for free handouts of the glasses and 10 patients did not know where to find the glasses. The remainder would either not watch the eclipse or simply had not got round to purchasing a pair of the glasses. Patients were also asked their plans during the actual eclipse period (Table 3).
Table 1. Sources of information concerning the eclipse
Table 2. Where patients obtained their glasses
(hospital, voluntary groups, Lions Clubs)
Table 3. What will you do during the eclipse?
|I will stay inside
|I will watch the eclipse
|I have not decided yet
|I will be abroad
|I will watch if I get free eclipse glasses
|I will pray
When specifically asked what were the dangers of the eclipse, 99% of patients knew that blindness was the main hazard.
The study we conducted was possibly biased, in that the sample population was mainly town based and therefore more exposed to the media. From our survey, the effort of the government and others to educate the public had been successful. Four months prior to the eclipse there was a daily half hour broadcast on television and radio to discuss the eclipse and what actions were needed. Information was also given in schools and there was even talk of parachuting people into the remote areas of the country to walk around giving advice. We saw several posters advising people to purchase eclipse glasses, and how to wear them, and also to keep their children indoors. Rural healers spoke of the eclipse as being ‘a powerful event’ and strong advice was given to stay inside. This was reflected in the results in our survey. A factory in the capital made the special glasses.
At another eye hospital, workshops had been set up to educate village volunteers, who would then take the message back to their respective regions. The lectures were designed to inform people on what eclipse glasses were and how to use them. The talks also encouraged people to stay indoors if they did not own a pair of protective spectacles. Eclipse glasses were being sold at 2500 Malagasy Francs a pair (approximately a day’s pay). Cost was evidently a problem for some.
One of the main problems we came across was the misinformation that was circulating. People spoke of how the eclipse glasses could transmit blinding diseases or that the eyes of the Malagasy were strong and the eclipse would only affect the weak eyes of the foreigners. A common pre-conception was that this event marked the end of the world – so who cared about their eyes? One young villager was less concerned about his own eyes than those of his cattle or the lemurs in the rainforest. “Who will protect their eyes? They do not understand like us”, he asked with a blank expression. Some people believed that Madagascar was to be the only country to be affected by the eclipse, and that this was probably due to the Vazaha (white people) who had brought the problem with them from abroad. It seemed that the eclipse might even mean the arrival of God to the capital city.
It seemed that most of the population stayed indoors during the eclipse and heeded the advice of the local healers. One BBC correspondent, who spent the eclipse in a large village in a dry forest to the west of the country, commented that out of the 5000 villagers only 12 actually ventured out to watch the eclipse. There were far more tourists who flocked to the southern reaches of Madagascar in order to catch a glimpse of the solar eclipse.
Our study audited the incidence of solar maculopathy post-eclipse presenting to the eye clinic. Five months after the event there had been no reported sightings of eclipse related retinopathy. This was in stark contrast to a study in the UK2 which reported 70 cases of temporary visual loss after the 1999 eclipse. They reported no cases of permanent visual disturbance 6 months later. Rai et al 3 in a study in Nepal audited the incidence of solar maculopathy over a 20 month period. They found that 40% of the 319 cases were eclipse related.
The Malagasy eclipse experience highlights the fact that an underdeveloped country can provide effective public health education. Clearly the beliefs of the population played an important part in keeping a large percentage of people indoors during the eclipse.
1 Yannuzi LA, Fisher YL, Slakter JS, Krueger AS. Solar retinopathy: a photobiological and geophysical analysis. Retina 1989; 9: 28-43.
2 Michaelides M, Rajendram R. Eclipse Retinopathy. Eye 2001; 15 (pt.2): 148-151.
3 Rai N, Thuladar L. Solar Retinopathy. A Study from Nepal and Germany. Doc Ophthalmol 1998; 95(2): 99-108.