News / Health

Restoring Sight to the Cataract-Blinded Poor

Restoring Sight to the Cataract-Blinded Poor i
X
June 28, 2013 12:30 AM
Two eye surgeons, one American and one Nepalese, are united on a quest to end preventable blindness - blindness that leads to poverty and early death for many in the developing world. Over two decades, the efforts of the two doctors have returned sight to an estimated 2 million people in Africa and Asia. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver reports.
Cataract Surgery Developing World
Carolyn Weaver
In China or Ethiopia, Rwanda or Nepal, the scenes are the same: crowds of patients waiting in the open air, bandages over their eyes. Each has been blind for months, years, decades, because of cataracts, the hardened, clouded lens tissue that causes most of the world’s blindness. Each underwent a ten-minute microsurgery barely 24 hours earlier, in temporary field hospitals where medical teams worked with assembly-line efficiency: making tiny slits in eyeballs, delicately removing cataracts, and inserting artificial lenses.

As the bandages come off, some people exclaim in joy, or do a little dance. Others have a wondering look, as they see the landscape, or the faces of family members again.

The two surgeons responsible for these scenes met in the Himalayas. Geoffrey Tabin, an American doctor educated at Yale and Harvard, was a passionate mountain climber when he met Sanduk Ruit, who had grown up in a poor Nepalese village, a ten-day walk from the nearest school. Ruit had studied medicine in India before returning to Nepal and embarking on a one-man effort to restore sight to Nepalese suffering from cataracts. In the developed world, cataracts are usually removed before they cause serious visual impairment. But in poorer nations, people often lose all sight, as the cataract hardens and covers the eyeball with a white veil. Even children may be afflicted, especially high in the Himalayas, where UV radiation from the sun damages the eye.

“Worldwide, there are 18 million people who can’t see the shadow of a hand move across their face because they’re blind from cataracts,” Tabin says. In places where the margins of survival are thin, the blind are often plunged into greater poverty and even early death. Poor families cannot afford to lose a worker, or to feed and care for someone helpless. “They call it a ‘mouth without hands,’” Tabin says.

Ruit realized that modern surgery with artificial lens implantation could be done quickly, outside hospitals, at a cost of only about $25 per patient. The technique he refined allows cataracts to be removed in one motion, through a sutureless incision. Almost all have perfect vision the next day.

“He really is the genius behind our whole system of developing really top-quality cataract surgery for the poorest of the poor at very high volume,” says Tabin. Together, the two men founded the Himalayan Cataract Project in 1995. Its work has spread from Nepal to Bhutan, northern China, and northern India, in addition to about ten African countries, including Ethiopia, Rwanda, Ghana and South Sudan.
 
At the project’s “eye camps,” groups of visiting eye surgeons perform hundreds of the surgeries over a period of weeks in remote areas far from hospitals. Tabin says the technique is almost the same as in advanced Western hospitals, but the pace is much faster. “We have almost like an assembly-line production, where a doctor is just moving from patient to patient.” Over eleven days in February-March 2013, in Ethiopia, for example, teams performed more than 1300 surgeries.
 
Perhaps even more important, Tabin says, is that the camps train local doctors and medical workers in the technique, who then go on to train others. And it helps set up local, self-sustaining surgical operations.
 
All together, he estimates, two million people have had their vision restored through the project's efforts. He says the project’s goal, of wiping out preventable blindness through the developing world, seems increasingly attainable.
 
“When we started, there was a backlog of cataract blindness in Nepal. We thought it’s going to be a lifetime before we get a handle on this. But now doctors in Nepal are doing over 250,000 cataract surgeries every year, and people are coming in to have their cataracts done earlier and earlier,” Tabin says. “And Nepal, which is really the poorest country in South Asia, is now the only major developing country that’s reducing its rate of blindness now.”
 
Over the two decades of its existence, the project has been the subject of several documentaries. It is also the subject of a new book, “Second Suns: Two Doctors and Their Amazing Quest to Restore Sight and Save Lives,” by the late writer David Oliver Relin. In 2006, Ruit received the Ramon Magsaysay prize, often referred to as the Asian Nobel Prize, and Tabin was awarded an Unsung Hero award by the Dalai Lama.

It is the moment when the bandages come off, however, that Tabin says have been most gratifying. “When the patch comes off, there’s first this look of bewilderment, or ‘what am I seeing,’ and then recognition, and then this absolutely pure unadulterated joy,” he says. “I never get tired of seeing that.

You May Like

Islamic State Survivor: A Yazidi Girl's Tale

Sarah Said Haydar, captured a year ago while fleeing Islamic State onslaught in northern Iraq, was so traumatized by militants, she sought to end her own life More

EU, US Applaud Kosovo Law on Special Court

Joint statement says lawmakers' decision to address allegations of war crimes 'demonstrated their commitment to the rule of law and to honor international agreements' More

ASEAN Ministers to Push for S. China Sea Agreements

According to documents obtained by VOA Khmer, ministers will stand up for 'freedom of navigation, unimpeded lawful maritime commerce, trade and over flight' More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Cambodia Makes Progress Curbing Bear Tradei
X
Robert Carmichael
August 04, 2015 3:07 PM
Cambodia’s wild bears are under unprecedented pressure. Their native forests are being cut down at record rates, and China's huge demand for traditional medicine has made them targets. But experts say Cambodia's conservation efforts are setting an example that has put it well ahead of its neighbors in protecting bears. Robert Carmichael reports for VOA from Phnom Penh.
Video

Video Cambodia Makes Progress Curbing Bear Trade

Cambodia’s wild bears are under unprecedented pressure. Their native forests are being cut down at record rates, and China's huge demand for traditional medicine has made them targets. But experts say Cambodia's conservation efforts are setting an example that has put it well ahead of its neighbors in protecting bears. Robert Carmichael reports for VOA from Phnom Penh.
Video

Video Growing Number of E. Jerusalem Palestinians Seek Israeli Citizenship

Most Palestinians living in East Jerusalem have long rejected the option of full Israeli citizenship, seeing it as a betrayal to their political cause - the formation of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. But as that dream remains elusive, more and more Palestinians are applying for Israeli citizenship. Zlatica Hoke reports the decision is hard for many Palestinians who say they have to be pragmatic about it.
Video

Video With No Money, More Students, African Universities Struggle

Academics from around the African continent converged in Johannesburg last week for the African Universities Summit, a chance to tackle some of the major issues facing higher education in Africa today. VOA's Anita Powell reports from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Iraqi Yazidis Fear Death of Their Community

A year ago on August 3, Islamic State militants stormed the homelands of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, killing hundreds of men and enslaving thousands of women. The scenes of desperate Yazidi families crowding on the top of Sinjar mountain without food or water spurred Kurdish fighters into action, an emergency airlift and the start of the U.S. airstrike campaign against the Islamic State Sunni extremists. VOA's Sharon Benh reports from northern Iraq.
Video

Video Bangkok Warned It Soon Could Be Submerged

Italy's Venice and America's New Orleans are not the only cities gradually submerging. The nearly ten million residents of the Bangkok urban area now must confront warnings the city could become uninhabitable in a few decades. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from the Thai capital.
Video

Video Inclusive Gym Gets People With Disabilities in Fitness Spirit

Individuals with special needs are 58 percent more likely to be obese than the general population. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, they also have an increased likelihood of anxiety, depression and social isolation. But a sports club outside Washington wants to make a difference in these people's lives. With Carol Pearson narrating, VOA's June Soh reports.
Video

Video Wisconsin's Voter ID Law Still Mired In Controversy

Voter ID laws have sparked controversy across the US. More than 30 states enacted laws requiring citizens to show identification before they vote. Against fierce opposition, the state of Wisconsin recently enacted one the most restrictive voter ID laws in country. As Jeff Swicord reports, no one can predict its impact as the 2016 election nears.
Video

Video Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missions

Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Hailed as Highly Effective

At last, there's a way to end the suffering from the Ebola epidemic that has ravaged West Africa for more than a year. Researchers say the vaccine is so effective, there may never be a major outbreak of Ebola again. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
Video

Video Special Olympics Show Competitors' Skill, Determination

Special Olympics competitions will wrap up Saturday in Los Angeles, and the closing ceremony for athletes with intellectual disabilities will be held Sunday night. In a week of competition, athletes have shown what they can do through skill and determination. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Civil Rights Leaders Struggled to Achieve Voting Rights Act

Fifty years ago, lawmakers approved, and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The measure outlawed racial discrimination in voting, giving millions of blacks in many parts of the southern United States federal enforcement of the right to vote. Correspondent Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights leaders who were on the front lines in the struggle for voting rights.
Video

Video Shooter’s Grill: Serving Food with a Touch of the Second Amendment

Shooter's Grill, a restaurant in Rifle, Colorado, attracts visitors from all over the world as well as local patrons. The reason? Waitresses openly carry loaded firearms as they serve food, and customers are welcome to carry them, too. VOA's Enming Liu and Lin Yang paid a visit to Shooter's Grill, and heard different opinions about this unique establishment.
Video

Video Despite Controversy, Business Owner Continues Sale of Confederate Flags

At Cooter’s, a store in rural Sperryville, Virginia, about 120 kilometers west of Washington, D.C., Confederate flags are flying off the shelves. The red, white and blue battle flag, with 13 white stars representing the Confederate states, was carried by southern forces during the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s. The South had seceded from the Union over several key issues of disagreement, including slavery. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs