Deepa Kurup

Nine million Indians are classified as bilateral blind

BANGALORE: His eyes light up with hope every time the phone rings. It has been more than three months since Sameer, who lost his sight in a road accident, enlisted his name at a leading eye bank for corneal graft surgery.

“There have even been a few false alarms where families backed out at the last minute,” says his father, adding that until that “fateful call” comes through his son will have to wait in darkness.

Agonising wait

Thousands of people like Sameer, and many others who are not even aware or cannot afford such a procedure, languish in anticipation. Last year, 33,600 eyes were donated at 620 eye banks across the country, according to figures collated by the Eye Bank Association of India (EBAI).

However, over 1.1 million people, whose vision can be restored through corneal transplantation, wait in despair, says G. Ganesh, executive director, EBAI.

Of the 27 million Indians who suffer from sight impairment, nine million are classified as bilateral blind. About 3 million are corneal blind; 60 per cent of whom are aged below 12, and their eyesight can be restored by corneal transplantation.

“There needs to be an assertive campaign to increase awareness, train personnel and even social workers who can convince families to overcome their stigma,” he explains.

Stigma

Less than a decade ago, eye donations were ridden with stigmas — both cultural and religious. In Karnataka, today an average 2,000 eyes are donated every year. When people heard that the late thespian Rajkumar had pledged his eyes, thousands came forward to do the same — the number of donors increased by 200 per cent that year, says Bhujanga Shetty, chairman of Narayana Nethralaya, a leading eye clinic. This was a turning point in the eye donation movement in the State. “Since then we have roped in all the big names in the film industry to support the cause,” he said.

But besides this the eye donation network and facilities, particularly in villages, leave a lot to be desired.

Time factor

The cornea needs to be collected within six hours, and so it is important that an eye bank is just a phone call away. Thus, the need to build a network of eye banks and eye collection centres at the district level cannot be stressed enough. Also, laws (such as those in the U.S.) where hospitals are mandated to request families for an eye donation or inform them of the option must be brought in to regularise the process.

Often emotional relatives do not allow corneas to be removed. Cultural beliefs such as rebirths and rituals are other hurdles that need to be overcome.

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