Of the five senses, vision is arguably the most important. People perceive 80% of impressions through sight. Vision helps people determine if a situation is dangerous, or helps them find a familiar face in a crowd. Without vision, life becomes more difficult to navigate. Cataracts are a natural, age-related disease that all people will experience if they live long enough. In developed countries, it is easy for people to access care to remove cataracts; however, the process is much more difficult in underdeveloped countries. Here is some information about cataracts and the groups providing cataract surgery to people in extreme poverty, specifically in the country of Nigeria.
What are Cataracts?
Inside a person’s eye is a lens. The lens is located behind the iris or the colored part of the eye. Light travels through the pupil—the dark hole in the center of the iris—and the lens focuses it onto the retina, which sends the image to the brain. The lens is normally clear, but cataracts cause it to become cloudy and opaque so that light can not penetrate through the lens as well. This obstruction causes the vision to become blurry and dark.
Who Do Cataracts Affect?
According to the World Health Organization, at least 2.2 billion people currently experience vision impairment or blindness. Of those individuals, 65.2 million experience blindness from cataracts and 52.6 million have vision impairment from cataracts. About 99% of people with cataracts live in developing countries.
Although aging is the most common cause of cataracts, several factors speed up the process. When people work outdoors and are consistently in the sun, their eyes have exposure to UV light rays which are incredibly harmful and aid in cataract production.
Agricultural jobs make up 54% of the workforce in Africa, meaning many people are outdoors for long periods of time. About 600,000 Africans experience blindness each year due to cataracts. Yet, of the entire African population, only about 0.0005% get cataract surgery. In comparison, 7.5% of Americans aged 65 or older undergo cataract surgery each year. However, with limited ophthalmologists and expensive medical fees, the people of Sub-Saharan Africa, including those in Nigeria, lack access to this otherwise commonly performed surgery. Fortunately, several institutions are providing cataract surgery to people in extreme poverty.
The more developed a cataract becomes, the harder it is for affected individuals to see, work and take care of themselves. One organization, SEE International, provides “essential and transformative eye care and surgery around the world,” through programs connecting volunteers and medical professionals to the people who need their services most. Nigeria is one of the top 10 most populated countries in the world but has limited access to eye care specialists. There is only one eye doctor available per million people in urban areas. In rural areas, which encompass 70% of the population, the ratio is even lower. SEE hosts several clinics a year in Port Harcourt to provide free eye care, including cataract surgery.
Vision Care is a program based out of South Korea that brings free cataract surgery to Lagos, Nigeria to help eliminate avoidable blindness. Even with limited access to eye care providers, however, patients stated the financial cost was the biggest obstacle to receiving this surgery. Vision Care gives the gift of cataract surgery to people in extreme poverty. By eradicating the need to provide payment, Vision Care has helped many people regain their sight and quality of life. On top of performing cataract surgeries, the program has also worked on educating eye care professionals in Lagos to help those doctors perform more comprehensive and upscale services.
The International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness (IAPB)
The International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness (IAPB) is the leading alliance fighting global blindness through advocacy, partnerships and knowledge. With programs like World Sight Day, the IAPB aims to ensure universal access to quality eye care by providing cataract surgery to people in extreme poverty and treating other eye diseases like glaucoma and macular degeneration. The IAPB Africa branch recognizes the alarming shortage of eye health professionals: with the general shortage of health care workers, 57 countries are in crisis, with 36 of those located in Africa. In 2014, the IAPB developed a 10-year plan to achieve universal coverage in all Sub-Saharan countries with goals to have “the right number [of eye health professionals] in the right place at the right time.”
These noble organizations are providing cataract surgery to people in extreme poverty, which, in turn, does more for these individuals than restore vision: every dollar that goes toward improving sight produced a four-fold return in developing countries. As eye care takes higher priority in developing countries, the economic and social benefits will enable millions to live higher-quality lives.
– Tawney Smith