June is Cataract Awareness Month. Half of all cases of blindness are caused by cataracts, and the majority of these 20 million cases of cataract-induced blindness occur in developing countries. When someone goes blind in many of these countries, it can mean loss of job and status and cause complete dependence on family members. Last July, we wrote an article on cataract prevention tips. This year, we want to highlight a few organizations working to help treat people in third-world countries with cataracts through surgery.
The first one, the Himalayan Cataract Project (HCP) (http://www.cureblindness.org), seeks to provide cataract-reversing surgery to people in the countries of the Himalayas and sub-Saharan Africa. They also help build eye care facilities and train locals as eye care specialists who can run the clinics, perform cataract surgeries themselves, and train others. Eye care teams will travel into remote areas to provide service to rural communities in hard-to-reach areas. The surgeries are fast and high-quality; even those who can afford to pay the full cost of the cataract surgery only pay $120 USD. Some examples of countries they have locations in include China, Nepal, Bhutan, India, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Kenya, and Nigeria. Together with their partners, in 2013 HCP examined and treated more than 670,000 patients and performed surgeries on 60,017 people.
Another organization, known as SEE (Surgical Eye Expeditions) International (http://www.seeintl.org), uses volunteer ophthalmologists to travel on short-term charitable trips around the world. They set up five-day clinics, where locals and those from surrounding communities can come to be examined and treated. One clinic can perform 50-200 surgeries in five days. With SEE, most of the equipment and supplies are donated by companies, and the ophthalmologists pay for their own travel expenses and donate their time. The traveling ophthalmologists also train local ophthalmologists on new equipment, technology, and procedures. Since 1974 when the organization was founded, over 400,000 surgeries have been performed and 3.2 million people screened.
The Fred Hollows Foundation (FHF) (http://www.hollows.org.nz) is located in New Zealand and is dedicated to bringing back sight to Pacific Islanders with treatable blindness. They have set up training centers, where Pacific Island healthcare workers can come and be trained in eye care and eye surgery. They also set up eye care clinics, and run outreaches into rural areas to provide screenings and surgeries to rural communities. The Pacific Islands are a challenge to provide suitable eye health care because they are spread over thousands of miles and there are so few eye health specialists; in Timor-Leste, there are only three eye doctors in a population of over one million. But FHF continues to strive to end blindness in the Pacific area; in 2013, almost 5,000 surgeries were performed, and 29 eye care professionals graduated from their training centers.
One more organization that helps to restore sight and train eye care professionals is Orbis (http://www.orbis.org). Orbis maintains the Flying Eye Hospital, which is contained on a commercial-sized jet. They train not just surgeons or nurses but an entire eye care health team so that a clinic may be fully staffed. They also advocate for more favorable government policies in third-world countries to improve eye care, as well as help raise public awareness about eye health issues. The Flying Eye Hospital is outfitted with many video cameras and audio systems that allow local doctors and health professionals to view live surgeries from within the plane and even communicate with the surgeons, asking questions about procedures. Because of this, the Flying Eye Hospital is both a portable eye surgery center and a portable training center. Orbis has worked in 92 countries, and in 2013 they trained 22,000 eye care professionals and treated 5.7 million adults and children.