Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of August 30, 1999
Sight to the blind
Development agency says 80 per cent of loss of sight is preventable
By BETH JOST REIMER
Special to the WCR
What will the world look like in 20 years? For some 77 million people, it won't look like anything - a world of perpetual darkness, without light or colour.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 45 million people in the world are blind. If more isn't done to fight the causes of blindness, particularly in developing countries, this number is expected to almost double by the year 2020.
Christian Blind Mission International-Canada, representing its many partner organizations including the Catholic Church, has joined forces with the WHO and an international coalition of non-governmental organizations in a campaign to eliminate avoidable blindness by 2020.
The new initiative is called Vision 2020: The Right to Sight.
Eighty per cent of the blindness in the world is avoidable; that is to say, it is either preventable or curable.
"We already know what to do. The issue is getting the necessary treatment to the masses of people who need it," said Dave McComiskey, assistant national director of CBMI-Canada.
For this reason 20 non-governmental organizations throughout the world have linked arms in the name of efficiency and effectiveness.
"This is the first time WHO and a broad base of international non-governmental blindness prevention organizations are working together in a concerted and collective effort to eliminate a growing problem," said Art Brooker, national director of CBMI-Canada.
The coalition has identified five conditions as immediate priorities in the fight against preventable and curable blindness - cataracts, trachoma, onchocerciasis (river blindness), childhood blindness and low vision.
"The treatments available for curing and preventing blindness are some of the most effective and cost effective in the medical and health field," says McComiskey.
Half of all blindness is due to cataracts and could be cured with an operation that takes a matter of minutes and, at CBMI projects, costs an average of $27.
Another 30 per cent of blindness is preventable and, according to McComiskey, "The medications needed to prevent blindness caused by trachoma, vitamin A deficiency in children and river blindness cost only pennies per person, including distribution."
Christian Blind Mission International works in partnership with the Catholic Church in 162 projects in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
These projects represent the gamut of CBMI's services. The Mount Sion Centre for the Blind in Papua New Guinea operates a community-based rehabilitation (CBR) program that works to rehabilitate and integrate blind and otherwise disabled people into village life, using the community's own people and resources.
The St. Benedict's Hospital Eye Department in Tanzania strives to cure blindness and blinding diseases through the skills of professional ophthalmologists.
A Catholic primary health service in Haiti strives to prevent childhood blindness through screening medication and health education.
CBMI has been partnering with like-minded organizations like the Catholic Church for over 25 years. With Vision 2020, CBMI is broadening its cooperation beyond the faith community. According to McComiskey, this in no way changes CBMI's own mandate of preaching the Gospel in word and deed.
"Jesus led the way in restoring sight," he said. "We believe Christians today should also show leadership in compassion for people who are poor and blind."
There are pockets of the world in more desperate need than the average Canadian can clearly imagine - places where children go to bed hungry and medical care is a luxury beyond the means of the general public, where eye care is virtually non-existent and people live entire lives of curable blindness.
Cambodia is one such pocket.
CBMI ophthalmologist in Takeo, Dr. Andy Pyott, describes a country still suffering the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge - whose reign of terror in the 1970s reduced the population to a mass of emaciated, terrified peasants. Only 22 doctors survived the government-imposed genocide, which specifically targeted educated professionals.
How does any country, let alone a poor country like Cambodia, cope with the loss of an entire generation of doctors?
Today, in this country of 10 million people, the per capita health budget is $2.
"Civil servants (including doctors and nurses) receive inadequate pay of between $15 and $20 per month," Pyott wrote in a recent report.
About 120,000 people are blind in Cambodia. Twenty per cent of cataract patients are under the age of 55.
"To try and improve the provision of eye services," wrote Pyott, "it was decided to select and train teams of basic eye doctors and basic eye nurses to serve the provinces. Two training centres exist: one in the north at Siem Reap run by HelpAge, and the other run by CBMI and Maryknoll in the south at Takeo."
Between the two centres, six eye doctors have already been trained.
Mung Tolah (16 years old) and his sister Mung Chan Tung (22) are among those who have received help through the Maryknoll medical program. Both were born with cataracts and lived their childhoods with severely diminished and deteriorating vision. Each became blind around the age of eight.
Only 10 per cent of children in Asia, Africa or Latin America ever receive formal education. Many of them are hidden away out of shame. Their future holds little more than begging and dependence.
Thanks to the Maryknoll Eye Centre, Mung Tolah and Mung Chan Tung have received cataract surgery and experienced the joy of restored sight.
The eye centre hasn't been able to solve all their problems, but it has given this brother and sister hope of a better future.