Lack of eye surgeons leaves 1 million blind, says charity

UK-based charity targets cataract surgery, which accounts for more than 50 per cent of avoidable blindness in Pakistan and Sudan

More than 1 million people in Pakistan and Sudan are needlessly blind from the preventable eye condition cataract because of a lack of trained surgeons, the regional head of a global eye charity has said.

The age-related eye condition accounts for more than 50 per cent of avoidable blindness in those two countries, according to the UK-based Sightsavers. In 2014, 936,000 people in Pakistan and 125,000 people in Sudan were affected by cataract – a clouding of the lens inside the eye that eventually leads to blindness – impacting on their ability to work and provide for their families.

“Cataract is an age-related disease. You can’t prevent cataract 100 per cent and you can’t eliminate this disease,” said Abdulla Al Nuaimi, director general of Sightsavers’ Middle East office. “But there is a huge backlog [of surgeries] in developing countries, including Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sudan.”

Training just 300 more surgeons each year in sub-Saharan Africa and south-east Asia would help clear the backlog, Al Nuaimi told Philanthropy Age, allowing an additional 120,000 cataract surgeries each year. The charity estimates each trained surgeon can perform around 300 surgeries annually.

The impact of cataract surgery extends beyond restoring someone’s sight, to relieving an economic cost for developing countries. “In most developing countries the person who becomes blind from cataract is the main provider for his family,” said Al Nuaimi. “It’s an economic and social impact.”

Government data in Sudan suggests the cost to the state of a blind or visually impaired person is $5 per day. “We’re talking about millions of dollars every month. It’s a huge economic burden on developing countries,” said Al Nuaimi.

The average global cost of cataract surgery is $50 per operation and can be as low as $35 per surgery in certain countries such as India, according to Sightsavers. Cataract accounts for 52 per cent of all avoidable blindness in Pakistan and 55 per cent in Sudan.

The disease is responsible for 51 per cent of blindness worldwide according to the World Health Organisation, which estimates some 20 million people globally are blind due to the eye condition. It is the leading cause of blindness in middle and low-income countries.