Half of the world’s blindness is caused by cataract. Cataract blindness can be treated with a short 20 minute operation. Unfortunately, this is something millions around the world are unable to access, including in the Pacific where cataracts account for 80 percent of avoidable blindness.
What is a cataract?
Cataract is the leading global cause of blindness. When someone suffers from cataract, a clouding in the normally clear lens, it causes vision to become proportionately reduced. Cataract can affect either or both eyes.
Early stages of cataract may cause no decrease in the acuity of vision and the eye can look normal to an untrained person. However, there can be other symptoms like glare sensitivity, blurry vision, faded colours, and reading difficulties.
The normally clear (black) pupillary area becomes grey, as a milky cloudiness of the lens progresses till the cataract is mature. Once a cataract is mature, it has a huge impact on a person’s independence, since only light and dark can be distinguished.
Cataracts can be removed through a relatively straightforward, low-cost operation recognised as one of the most cost-effective healthcare interventions in the developing world. Unfortunately, thousands in the Pacific are still unable to access this service.
Who suffers from it?
While cataract is commonly associated with ageing, not everyone who suffers from it is old. Some children are born with cataract (congenital cataracts). In these cases, early detection and treatment is critical to prevent permanent damage.
As well as being hereditary, other causes of cataract can include eye trauma, sunlight exposure, diabetes, genetic disorders, dehydration in children from severe diarrhoeal infection and fevers, and even some medications.
Most people with severe vision loss due to cataract live in developing countries. This is particularly devastating because work, education, and family life are affected, making it hard to escape the cycle of poverty. In some cases, people die prematurely. The impact of cataract is an inexcusable injustice because it’s a disease for which a safe, effective, and relatively inexpensive treatment is available in more developed parts of the world.
“Cataract surgery is one of the most successful and cost-effective surgical procedures of all time.” – The World Bank
Treatment for cataract
Good quality eye services are crucial for diagnosing and treating people with cataract. While well-trained non-specialists can detect people in need of cataract surgery, often with a simple torchlight examination at their doorstep, the pre-operative assessment and the surgery itself requires infrastructure, equipment, and technical skill.
Cataract is treated with a straight forward 20 minute surgery, performed in most countries by an eye doctor. Surgery involves removing the cloudy lens tissue, and replacing the natural lens with an implant called an intraocular lens (IOL). The power of the implant is calculated individually for each eye, so the image for distance is brought to focus on the retina. The person is able to see clearly within a few hours after surgery. Medication and care is required for a few weeks till the eye is completely healed.
It was Fred’s dream to provide low cost IOLs to the world. Part of our early work was to set up IOL factories in Eritrea and Nepal to lower the cost of cataract surgery in developing countries. Since they opened, the factories have produced over four million lenses. The low cost of production means that in some countries cataract surgery can cost as little as $25.
Can cataract be prevented?
Right now there’s no effective medical treatment to prevent cataract or slow its progress. However, cataracts can be operated on before vision loss leads to blindness.
In developing countries, the key to the prevention of blindness due to cataract is improving access to quality eye care services. This way, people can get the right advice on when surgery is needed, and what pre-and post-operative care is available.
Disclaimer: the content on this page is not intended to be medical advice. For medical advice, please contact your local health professional.