Qatar eyes $8m vision for better health

The Qatar Development Fund backs four-year initiative to improve eye care in India and Bangladesh

The Qatar Development Fund (QDF), the Gulf country’s foreign aid arm, has invested $8m in a new initiative to improve eye care in South Asia and prevent children from needlessly going blind.

The QDF backed four-year programme, launched Sunday, will help three eye charities train local medical staff in India and Bangladesh to provide 5.5 million eye check-ups, treat diseases and give children free glasses, if needed.

“Poor families, in both rural and urban areas, may not have the knowledge or the resources to prioritise eye health. And even if they did, they might not have access to suitable health facilities,” said David Bennett, head of programme support at Orbis, one of the charity partners. “The resulting treatment can help in many ways – allowing children to attend school, help their families, release a family member who has been caring for them, avoid stigma, play, and just enjoy their childhoods.”

The problem of poor vision is particularly acute in South Asia where treatment can be too expensive or clinics too far away. Orbis estimates there are more than 470,000 blind children in India and Bangladesh, and India is home to 20 per cent of the world’s blind.

Around the world, some 60 per cent of blind children die in childhood, mainly as a result of the conditions that caused the blindness in the first place, according to the World Health Organisation. But there is hope; around 80 per cent of global blindness is avoidable or curable if caught early, although this drops to 50 per cent for children, says the UN.

Orbis hopes the programme will get more children back into school and on track to a brighter future. A similar Orbis-run programme in China that provided free glasses to children with myopia (near-sightedness) improved their performance in maths tests, said Bennett. Curing visual impairment can also have far-reaching benefits for the country, he added.

“We believe the programme will help to reduce the economic loss and social burden faced by developing countries due to childhood blindness,” said Bennett. “It is estimated that the cumulative loss to India’s GDP is $11.1bn each year due to preventable and curable childhood blindness.”

The Qatar Creating Vision programme will be rolled out to 11 paediatric eye centres in India and eight in Bangladesh through the charities Orbis, Sightsavers and BRAC. As well as the screenings, the charities will provide information to local communities on how to spot the early signs of blindness.

“Many people take vision for granted and don’t realise how significant eye problems can be,” the fund said in an emailed statement.

The UK-based charity Orbis has trained around 325,000 medical professionals globally since 1982 in how to test and treat eye diseases such as cataracts or glaucoma; the charity uses a Flying Eye Hospital to conduct sight-saving surgery and train local surgeons and eye care staff.

“This is the first initiative of this scale that we have developed in the region,” said Florence Branchu, head of partnerships, Middle East, Orbis. “According to the World Bank, addressing and preventing blindness is among the most cost-effective public health interventions, yet this problem isn’t widely talked about… to have Qatar backing up our efforts is invaluable – it creates momentum and gives us a louder voice and a wider reach.”

Still, the programme is just a start. Other programmes and models will be needed to make sure the children continue to get access to eye clinics and services as they grow up, including updating and dispensing new glasses, said Bennett.

“Visual impairment in India and Bangladesh has a common cause, like in so many developing countries: socio-economic status and the level of development of local health systems,” he said. “Conditions that would be identified and treated routinely and quickly in developed countries are able to develop into significant problems in developing countries.”

Photo credit: Orbis/ Rosie Croysdale