Blindness in India

An article in TOI - 11 Oct 2007,

Kounteya Sinha,TNN. Author's copyrights acknowledged. Used here solely for informative purposes.

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India has largest blind population

NEW DELHI: India is now home to the world's largest number of blind people. Of the 37 million people across the globe who are blind, over 15 million are from India.

What's worse, 75% of these are cases of avoidable blindness, thanks to the country's acute shortage of optometrists and donated eyes for the treatment of corneal blindness. While India needs 40,000 optometrists, it has only 8,000.

On the other hand, while India needs 2.5 lakh donated eyes every year, the country's 109 eye banks (five in Delhi) manage to collect a maximum of just 25,000 eyes, 30% of which can't be used.

According to Ajeet Bhardwaj, outgoing president of the Asia Pacific Optometrists Organisation, India has 12,000 ophthalmologists who have no time to conduct blindness-preventing surgeries because they are flooded with general eye check-up of patients.

"For India, it is vital that ophthalmologists focus on surgeries and optometrists take charge of primary eye care refractive errors like presbyopia, contact lenses, low-vision aids and vision therapies. This is how most developed countries managed to control and eliminate avoidable blindness," Bhardwaj says.

Bhardwaj says 153 million people in the country require reading glasses but do not have access to them. Optometrists are eye physicians concerned with vision care, eye diseases and prescribe eyeglasses, contact lenses and medications to treat eye disorders.

An ophthalmologist specialises in surgical care of the eyes. India has just 20 optometry schools which produce just 1,000 optometrists annually as against the 17 million people being added to the population during the same period.

There is a shortage of faculty as well. There are also no regulatory laws to control the practice of optometry even though refractive error is one of the leading causes of blindness.

There is, therefore, no recognition, making Indian optometrists migrate to foreign shores. Optometry is among one of the best 10 professions in US and UK. Ophthalmologist Dr J S Titiyal, specialising in cornea and refractive surgery at AIIMS, agrees.

"More well trained professional optometrists will immensely help India as it will give us time to concentrate on surgery, our primary specialisation. Anyway India has just one eye surgeon per 100,000 people. At present, patients come to us even for eye power check-up. The government also needs to standardise optometric education to maintain quality," he says.

Meanwhile, shortage of donated eyes is becoming a huge problem. Of the 15 million blind people in India, three million, 26% of whom are children, suffer due to corneal disorders. But only 10,000 corneal transplants are being done every year due to the shortage of donated eyes. The Union health ministry has already launched a national programme to control blindness and expects to reach its blindness elimination target of 0.3% by 2015, five years before the WHO deadline of 2020.

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