This is a story about three little children who could see again. About a decade ago, during an eye camp conducted at a village in the border of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, villagers brought to the doctors three children of one family who had sub-normal vision, deteriorating at that. The children — two boys and a girl — were very young, the oldest under five years old, and were confined to their home because of the vision impairment.

The village believed the family was cursed and that the children would be blind for life. The doctors, however, diagnosed it to be a case of congenital (pre-senile) cataract brought on by their parents' consanguineous marriage (marrying within close relatives), easily remedied with simple surgeries. The children were taken to Rajan Eye Care hospital here and post-surgery, the three little children could see again.

“The whole village landed up at the hospital to thank us. They were amazed the children could see; they thought it was miraculous. It was also a turning point as the attitude of the villagers changed and they began to believe in the possibilities of medical solutions,” Mohan Rajan, Chairman & Medical Director, Rajan Eye Care Hospital, says. It was the hospital's team of doctors, working along with an Australian organisation Equal Health, that had performed the ‘miracle.'

“Ever since, our emphasis has shifted on to preventing blindness in the young. If you consider a child, or an adolescent, there is a loss of 33 working years, and there is a huge burden on the community, family and the government,” Dr. Rajan adds.

The figures are sobering. India accounts for one-fourth of all blindness in the world. Among the reasons for this are: malnutrition, vitamin deficiency, and rising incidence of diabetes. Of the 20 million people who are blind in India, about 2-2.5 million are children and the main causes among them are congenital in nature (due to consanguineous marriages), injuries, infections, and Vitamin A deficiency.

Considering the magnitude of the problem, clearly the government can scarcely be expected to provide all the solutions. Ophthalmology, particularly, is one area where the role of the private and voluntary sector has proven to be necessary and, so far, efficacious.

It is to address these issues of prevention, and early intervention that the hospital has launched its Blind Free India project. “Hitherto, the strategy has been to screen cataract in the villages, and bring the senior citizens into cities for the surgeries. We are now considering a holistic approach through rural outreach itself. We will not only screen for cataract, but also glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy, vision impairment and incorporate a spectacle-making unit, all within the confines of a van, equipped with diagnostic and tele-communication gadgets,” he explains. Key to the implementation of this scheme is Netravahana, a mobile service that intends to take free tertiary eye care to the door step of rural folk. Funded by Cognizant Foundation, Amritraj Foundation, and Rotary International, apart from the hospital's trust, it will traverse a radius of 150 km from Chennai. The target is to cover about 10 million people during the first phase of the project over the next three/four years. It can also provide minor laser-based treatment procedures within the van itself.

The van will also be responsible for undertaking awareness and communication activities about the facilities, avoiding and taking care of injuries and infections, controlling blood sugar levels and even retarding the development of cataract.