by Tansy Kaschak
The mighty Himalayas are a superlative sight. The immense mountain range can be seen from afar and from space as it sprawls over Bhutan, India, Nepal, China, Pakistan and Tibet, where their monumental presence is cherished and revered. Home to the tallest peaks on Earth, the Himalayan communities have built a life around receiving those seeking to look at the horizon from unparalleled heights. Contrastingly, these communities also happen to have some of the highest rates of curable blindness in the world. In Nepal alone, more than 70% of blindness can be attributed to cataracts and lack of access to quality eye care.
When people become blind, their life expectancy drops to one-third, compared to their healthy peers. Being blind in the Himalayas’ rugged terrain means a high percentage of those affected do not work and are unable to live a fairly independent life. Blindness becomes a propagated hindrance for family members who forgo work or school to care for them.
In the 1990s, among the mountaineers that have reached the intimidating Everest summit, there was Geoffrey Tabin, a young American doctor who was working at a Nepalese hospital, seeking a medical specialty to pursue. Fate had him meet local ophthalmologist Sanduk Ruit, then already known for his dedication to reverse treatable cataracts. A year later, in 1995, they co-founded the Himalayan Cataract Project, with a mission to provide high quality, direct eye care to patients. Creating a ripple effect, they also started training other doctors to follow in their footsteps. To date, the Himalayan Cataract Project and its in-country partners have restored vision in more than one million people.
What is cataract?
Globally, 217 million people struggle with low vision and another 36 million people are blind. Treatable cataracts are the leading cause, and account for about 70% of unnecessary blindness. Cataracts are cloudy or opaque areas in the lens of the eye that block light entry, and develop naturally with age. In underprivileged countries, poor nutrition, injury, disease or exposure to unfiltered ultraviolet sunlight can speed up the clouding. Though cataracts can be treated by replacing the cloudy lens with a clear, soft, plastic implant, access to the surgery is limited and surgeons can be scarce in far-flung regions.
How can cataract be reversed?
Cataract’s earliest surgical operations date back to as early as the 5th century BC. Today, the procedure is one of the most rapid, cost effective and transformative health interventions, resulting in a deep improvement of people’s lives.
Thanks to Dr. Sanduk Ruit’s surgical and lens-implant innovations, cataract surgeries take ten minutes and cost as little as twenty five dollars in materials. Since the Himalayan Cataract Project started, the blindness rate in Nepal dropped from 1 to 0.24 percent, comparable to that of Western countries. With Bhutan, they are the first and only two countries in the world where the rate of blindness has been reversed.
The miracle of cataract surgery.
There is something undeniably miraculous about making the blind see again. When patients receive cataract surgery, in about 80% of cases, their vision is restored overnight or within a few hours.
“In the village where I was working, it was an accepted thing: people there got old, their hair turned white, their eyes turned white, and they died,” Dr. Geoffrey Tabin is often quoted saying. “People would get depressed and basically wait to die. When I first saw a team do cataract surgery with lens implants, it just absolutely blew my mind: the miracle of bringing people not just sight, but back to life.”
How does the Himalayan Cataract Project work?
Also known as HCP Cure Blindness, the Himalayan Cataract Project works to eradicate preventable and curable blindness in underserved countries. Training local providers, it supports a vast network of partners to amplify their impact and create self-sustaining eye care systems. Along with Nepal and Bhutan, the project has now reached over 20 countries, including North Korea, India, Pakistan, Cambodia, Myanmar, China, Kenya and Tanzania.
Despite the profound positive impact that restored vision has in people’s lives, their communities and local economies, compared to other global healthcare concerns, eye care is often not regarded as a priority. “In low resource countries, infectious diseases are high on the list of national healthcare focus. Eye care has a tendency to be a much lower priority in terms of the attention and the resources that some countries have to devote. Yet sight restoration has a profound and transformative impact on families, communities and countries. That’s why we go, and do what we do,” says Sarah Judd, Himalayan Cataract Project’s Development Director.
How to support Himalayan Cataract Project.
A gift of $25 to Himalayan Cataract Project restores sight and hope to someone with little access to quality eye care. https://www.cureblindness.org/donatePhotography home page and top of article by Ace Kvale.
Photography remaining page by John Kernick.