The COVID-19 pandemic has severely hampered corneal retrieval and transplant, forcing eye surgeons to postpone transplants indefinitely, or in extreme cases source cornea from other States.
Transplant is the only option for those with eye injuries resulting in corneal blindness. S. Josephine Christy, medical consultant, Cornea and Refractive Surgery Services, Aravind Eye Hospital, Puducherry, said people with diabetes, hypertension or those who had undergone cataract surgery could also donate their eyes.
Awareness drives in the State had helped to some extent as even during the pandemic there were heart-warming instances of parents donating their children’s eyes. A mortuary worker at Government Rajaji Hospital in Madurai donated the eyes of her 19-year-old son after he died in an accident.
A 23-year-old youth, also from Madurai, pledged his eyes on his birthday on August 14 last year. He died in an accident on his birthday this year, and his father fulfilled his wishes.
In the last eight months, at least 62 corneas were retrieved from persons aged below 25 years in Madurai, said Venkatesh Prajna, chief of cornea at Aravind Eye Hospital. “Donors are the real heroes who motivate us to provide our services to help solve the problem of corneal blindness,” he said.
Tamil Nadu is among the top five high-performance States in the last seven years. “The donors have helped Tamil Nadu remain among the top five high-performance States in eye donation for the last seven years when 50,000-plus corneas were collected and the State accounted for one-fifth of them each year,” Dr. Prajna said.
“Madurai, with close to 800 cornea transplants, was the first district to achieve zero wait-list; a reversal in progress is unfortunate,” he added, pointing to the setback caused by the pandemic.
People who died of heart attacks did not have such a test done, said Mohan Rajan, managing director of Rajan Eye Care Hospital, Chennai. He said he sourced corneas from an institution in Hyderabad for an emergency procedure.
At Sankara Nethralaya, transplants fell to a third of what the hospital performed in a normal year, vice-chairman T.S. Surendran said. Since 2017, the hospital has performed over 600 corneal transplants annually, but in 2020 it performed only 243 transplants as cornea donations had fallen. In a normal year, the hospital received around 1,200 donations, he said.
S.V. Chandrakumar, State programme officer, Tamil Nadu State Blindness Control Society, said the State did not face any cornea shortage for elective surgeries even during the pandemic. “We are getting enough corneas for elective surgeries. The need for therapeutic corneas was lower as the number of injuries also fell,” he said. “We are slowly picking up on cornea retrieval. In another three or four months, it will be in full swing.”
The State had created a registry to pledge eyes under the National Health Mission. So far, 6,500 people had registered themselves on the website.
“The need of the hour is for hospitals to use the registry to identify potential donors,” he said.
The system is simple as in the event of death of the donor his family could use their mobile number and retrieve the donor certificate that hospitals can use, Dr. Chandrakumar said. According to him, roughly 10,000 corneas are retrieved annually under the National Programme for Control of Blindness.