More than meets the eye

Dr. Gerald Msukwa was early to the operating room on Wednesday. The ophthalmologist was preparing to perform an eye surgery in a hospital in Malawi, only this time the operation is special — it’s going to be broadcast online.

The surgery is for a 69-year-old man who has been blind for two years after developing cataracts, a leading cause for blindness worldwide. The disease can be inborn or linked to other ailments like diabetes or onchocerciasis (river blindness), but the majority of people at risk of getting cataracts are simply adults over 40 years old.

“I always compare it to the way we get gray hair as we grow older,” Msukwa told Devex before the operation. “The lens of the eyes becomes less clear so you can’t see.”

The operation, webcast live over the Google Hangout platform, is set to kick-start a new initiative by Sightsavers to restore vision for 1 million people suffering from the disease in developing countries. The nongovernmental organization hopes to raise 30 million pounds ($38.5 million) for the initiative through the U.K. Aid Match fund, under which the U.K. Department for International Development will match the fund raised by the NGO.

Life-changing cataract operation streamed LIVE from Malawi, Africa

Each surgery is projected to cost 30 pounds, and Msukwa hopes this would include transportation costs for those living in the far-flung rural areas that have no access to a nearby well-equipped clinic, and also address other potential barriers to getting people for treatment, which is one of the most common operations performed worldwide.

The doctor explained that getting the information out — that people can get treatment for the disease for free and an operation at an affordable price — is already a challenge in itself.

“Even if you have information, [maybe] you are so poor that you can’t afford to travel distances to get to a place where you can get an operation,” Msukwa said, adding that roads in most rural areas in Malawi are not paved and hard to access.

Of the estimated 39 million blind people worldwide, over half — 51 percent — lost their vision due to cataracts, according to the latest available data from the World Health Organization. Although it can’t be prevented, the disease is treatable in almost all cases.

It’s unclear how Sightsavers and its partners plan to identify who will get the treatment by the time the initiative is implemented, but Msukwa anticipates the priority will be blind people living in remote areas who can’t afford the operation by themselves.

Other implementation issues — such as how they get a patient to a proper facility for surgery — will be discussed later on.

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About the author

  • Ravelo jennylei

    Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.