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

Video VOA EXCLUSIVE: Iraq President Vows to Fight IS 'Until They Are Killed or We Die'

In wide-ranging interview with VOA Persian service reporter, Fuad Masum describes conflict as new type of fight that will take time to win More

Video Russian Anti-Corruption Campaigner Slams Putin’s Crackdown on Dissent

In interview with VOA Alexei Navalny says he believes new law against 'undesirable NGOs' part of move to keep Russian president in power More

Video On The Scene: In Ethiopia, 'Are You a Journalist?' Is a Loaded Question

VOA's Anita Powell describes the difficulties faced by reporters in fully conveying the story in a country where people are reticent to share their true opinions 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.
Expelled from Pakistan, Afghan Refugees Return to Increased Hardshipi
X
Ayesha Tanzeem
May 28, 2015 6:48 PM
Undocumented refugees returning to Afghanistan from Pakistan have no jobs, no support system, and no home return to, and international aid agencies say they and the government are overwhelmed and under-resourced. Ayesha Tanzeem has more from Kabul.
Video

Video Expelled from Pakistan, Afghan Refugees Return to Increased Hardship

Undocumented refugees returning to Afghanistan from Pakistan have no jobs, no support system, and no home return to, and international aid agencies say they and the government are overwhelmed and under-resourced. Ayesha Tanzeem has more from Kabul.
Video

Video Britain Makes Controversial Move to Crack Down on Extremism

Britain is moving to tighten controls on extremist rhetoric, even when it does not incite violence or hatred -- a move that some are concerned might unduly restrict basic freedoms. It is an issue many countries are grappling with as extremist groups gain power in the Middle East, fueled in part by donations and fighters from the West. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video Floodwaters Recede in Houston, but Rain Continues

Many parts of Texas are recovering from one of the worst natural disasters to hit the southwestern state. Heavy rains on Monday and early Tuesday caused rivers to swell in eastern and central Texas, washing away homes and killing at least 13 people. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, floodwaters are receding slowly in the country's fourth-largest city, and there likely is to be more rain in the coming days.
Video

Video 3D Printer Makes Replica of Iconic Sports Car

Cars with parts made by 3D printers are already on the road, but engineers are still learning about this new technology. While testing the possibility of printing an entire car, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy recently created an electric-powered replica of an iconic sports roadster. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Al-Shabab Recruitment Drive Still on In Kenya

The al-Shabab militants that have long battled for control of Somalia also have recruited thousands of young people in Kenya, leaving many families disconsolate. Mohammed Yusuf recently visited the Kenyan town of Isiolo, and met with relatives of those recruited, as well as a many who have helped with the recruiting.
Video

Video US Voters Seek Answers From Presidential Candidates on IS Gains

The growth of the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria comes as the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign kicks off in the Midwest state of Iowa.   As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, voters want to know how the candidates would handle recent militant gains in the Middle East.
Video

Video A Small Oasis on Kabul's Outskirts Provides Relief From Security Tensions

When people in Kabul want to get away from the city and relax, many choose Qargha Lake, a small resort on the outskirts of Kabul. Ayesha Tanzeem visited and talked with people about the precious oasis.
Video

Video Film Festival Looks at Indigenous Peoples, Culture Conflict

A recent Los Angeles film festival highlighted the plight of people caught between two cultures. Mike O'Sullivan has more on the the Garifuna International Film Festival, a Los Angeles forum created by a woman from Central America who wants the world to know more about her culture.
Video

Video Kenyans Lament Losing Sons to al-Shabab

There is agony, fear and lost hope in the Kenyan town of Isiolo, a key target of a new al-Shabab recruitment drive. VOA's Mohammed Yusuf visits Isiolo to speak with families and at least one man who says he was a recruiter.
Video

Video Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thought

Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Kenya’s Capital Sees Rise in Shisha Parlors

In Kenya, the smoking of shisha, a type of flavored tobacco, is the latest craze. Patrons are flocking to shisha parlors to smoke and socialize. But the practice can be addictive and harmful, though many dabblers may not realize the dangers, according to a new review. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story for VOA from Nairobi, Kenya.
Video

Video Iowa Family's Sacrifice Shaped US Military Service for Generations

Few places in America have experienced war like Waterloo. This small town in the Midwest state of Iowa became famous during World War II not for what it accomplished, but what it lost. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the legacy of one family’s sacrifice is still a reminder today of the real cost of war for all families on the homefront.

VOA Blogs