Free Vision Care
With roughly 1.39 billion people, India is the second most populated nation in the world after China. India holds more than 20% of all blind people globally and it has more blind children than any other country. While wealthier people can afford eye care, the impoverished in rural areas or city slums usually go without it. In addition, there are fewer doctors and ophthalmologists in the countryside, which means that people in those regions are underserved. Rural persons with visual disability or blindness often lack accessible health care and education, and for these individuals, it is difficult to find employment. Yet, 80% of visual impairments are preventable or treatable with timely care, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2013. One organization working to reverse this trend is the nonprofit Sankara Nethralaya, which provides free vision care for impoverished people in India.

Major Causes of Blindness

According to a 2019 article by India’s National Health Portal, glaucoma affects approximately 12 million Indians and causes the majority of irreversible blindness in India, with close to 1.2 million people left sightless. Yet, a staggering 90% of glaucoma cases in India never receive a diagnosis. Furthermore, refractive error, an eye disorder in which the inability to focus creates blurred vision, causes visual impairments or blindness in the eyesight of almost 40 million Indians. This sobering figure includes 1.6 million children. Many people enduring uncorrected refractive errors are impoverished villagers without access to prescription glasses.

Four Decades of Eye Care

Founded in 1978 in Chennai, India, by Dr. S. S. Badrinath, Sankara Nethralaya’s goal is to provide high-quality free vision care for the impoverished people of India. For those who can pay for these services, Sankara Nethralaya offers affordable vision care. Funded by the nonprofit Sankara Nethralaya OM Trust, each year the Sankara Nethralaya hospital provides 4,000 major eye surgeries to destitute patients in Chennai. It also has branches in Andhra Pradesh, Kolkata and Sri City. Over the past 40 years, Sankara Nethralaya has helped millions of patients to preserve and regain their eyesight.

A Mobile Unit Travels to Remote Villages

The hospital sends out a Mobile Eye Surgical Unit that does free cataract surgeries on up to 200 people over two weeks in rural villages. The unit also screens adults for glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy, major causes of blindness in India. In addition, “Sankara Nethralaya provides teleophthalmology services in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, thereby reducing the need for travel.” Finally, the organization’s research division, the Kamalnayan Bajaj Institute for Research, focuses on topics such as nanobiotechnology in relation to visual impairments.

Blindness Creates a Cycle of Poverty

Because of vision issues such as cataracts, many low-wage earners are unable to continue working, thereby reducing the resources of the entire family and creating more financial hardships. With sight restored, individuals can resume work and earn an income to raise their families out of poverty. WHO estimates that preventable visual disorders led to a global economic loss of $110 billion in 2020.

For its excellent work in helping patients with cataracts, glaucoma and other eye disorders, in 2021, Newsweek ranked Sankara Nethralaya as “one of the World’s Best Hospitals” for ophthalmology. The nonprofit continues its decades-long tradition of providing free vision care for the impoverished of India.

– Sarah Betuel
Photo: Flickr