‘Childhood Blindness is Not given Importance in India’
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09 April 2010
Dr K Bhujang Shetty, chairman, Narayana Nethralaya, Bangalore, is on a mission to eradicate curable blindness among infants and restore vision in adults and senior citizens. He tells Nirmala Nagaraj about the status, progress and hurdles in preventing blindness in India:
Has tackling visual impairment in India been a big challenge?
Yes. In developed countries, the incidence of blindness is 0.3 per cent, but in India, 1.1 per cent of the population suffers from it.
Why has prevention of childhood blindness been your focus?
In India, annually there are 27 million live births and of these, 8.8 per cent weigh below two kg. So close to two million babies are at risk of being affected by Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP), a big cause of blindness among infants. Over the past few decades, with advances in neonatal care, we’ve been able to save premature babies, but without access to timely care, these infants become visually impaired. Since these are treatable diseases, our mission is to shield children from them.
How can we address this issue?
Unfortunately, childhood blindness is not given importance in India. Without access to timely treatment, children are suffering from irreversible visual impairment. Two years ago, we started Project ROP in which we screened premature babies in seven districts in Karnataka. We screened over 2,000 premature babies and of these, around 200 were diagnosed with ROP and 200 babies were saved from blindness.
Project ROP and Narayana Nethralaya are recognised as models for preventing rural infant blindness… Narayana Nethralaya started Project ROP in 2007 in seven districts of Karnataka. Now, along with the state government, in a private-public partnership under the National Rural Health Mission, we extended the service to all districts in the state. The central government is considering adopting a similar model in other states. There are only 350 retinal surgeons in India and less than 20 centres providing comprehensive ROP screening. Through teleophthalmology, we reach infants in remote and rural areas. Our trained technicians with portable Retcams travel in a mobile unit and screen premature babies.
We have developed a unique telemedicine software. Our doctors can view, diagnose and produce reports of images, which get beamed onto their phones. With Karnataka State Internet Assisted Diagnosis of ROP, our experts can diagnose the problem of an infant in remote villages.
With increased life expectancy, cataractisabigproblem.
About 40 per cent of people above 50 years are likely to be affected by cataract. Fortunately, it is reversible, so through a series of camps by government and private hospitals and NGOs, we can control cataract. The number of surgeries has doubled.
How will the increase in thenumberofdiabeticsaffect cases of blindness?
Diabetes is one of the common causes of blindness. But, people don’t realise that the eye is as important as the heart or the kidney. They don’t take precautions at an early stage. Eyesight can be affected even with proper sugar control, as vision is related to the duration of the disease. Patients suffering from diabetes for over 10 years are at risk of developing vision problems.
What progress have we made in gene therapy?
Currently, our focus is on identifying defective genes. We are collaborating with several international organisations in the UK and Canada. Research in gene therapy is vital for India as blindness related to consanguineous marriages, which is common in India, can be addressed.