Sightsavers blog

A UK eyesight crisis – and how different it could have been elsewhere

Dominic Haslam, December 2016
A mountainous landscape in Malawi with a solo motorbike.

“My mother was just a few hours away from the permanent loss of her sight”

Earlier this week, my mother nearly went blind. In less than a day, the pressure in one of her eyes went from the normal level of 10-21mm Hg (millimetres of mercury) to 81 mm Hg.

The other eye wasn’t far behind. Her symptoms included varying degrees of pain and some cloudy vision. But nothing serious enough to stop her from going through with an already planned minor medical procedure on her hand. She didn’t know she was in the early stages of acute glaucoma and that she was hours away from the permanent loss of her sight.

Later that day, the symptoms worsened. She was driven to the local A&E and referred to a specialist eye unit in Coventry. Fortunately, one of the clinical staff realised how urgent the situation was and, when the first method to reduce the pressure didn’t work, moved my mother onto a drip-fed method. Over a period of a few hours, the pressure was reduced. The two clinical staff involved went into overtime for this one patient. All on the NHS.

The result? Pressure reduced, eyesight saved and a minor laser surgical procedure (an iridectomy) to reduce the chances of further episodes. Two follow-up dates are already in the diary and she now has a wealth of information to draw on, from the clinic, from the internet, and of course from me, gathering all the material I can from Sightsavers resources (and special thanks to Sandeep Buttan for prompt advice just after getting off a plane from Bhopal). A huge relief.

A world of difference

But what if I’d written that first sentence from parts of Malawi, Nigeria, Kenya or Bangladesh – or indeed any other developing country? It would probably have read differently. Only a little differently. With just one word missing: “nearly”. One word, a world of difference.

Millions of people living in parts of the world with poor access to quality health services lose their sight because of conditions far easier to treat than acute glaucoma. Cataracts are the leading cause of avoidable blindness, responsible for over 50 per cent of the more than 31 million people who are blind from avoidable conditions. Sightsavers, working within existing health systems, supported more than 200,000 cataract operations last year. That’s 200,000 people who would otherwise have gone blind.

But many times this number of people will go blind this year, next year and in the years to come. Not because they don’t look after their eyes, or because they don’t value their sight, or because of anything they’ve done. But because there is no eye health service available, they can’t afford the transport costs or medical fees involved, or they simply aren’t aware that their condition can be treated.

This is why Sightsavers focuses on building the evidence base of what works in developing sustainable eye health services, accessible to all, affordable by all. Only by building health systems can we ensure that everyone has access to this basic health need, irrespective of where they are born.

When I was first able to talk to my mother after her surgery, she said, fighting back the tears: “I just couldn’t stop thinking about not seeing my children and grandchildren again.” For so many people, that painful thought becomes a reality. A reality that in many cases can be easily avoided.

By Dominic Haslam, Director of Policy and Programme Strategy at Sightsavers

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