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INDIA has 12 million blind people and about 8 million people who are sightless in one eye. The main causes of this disability are nutritional deficiency and lack of health education -- blindness can be prevented and cured. "Eye diseases associated with malnutrition are more common in the south than in the north due to poorer dietary habits in the south," says Nasib Singh, honorary member of the Delhi branch of the Blind Relief Association. About 10 million of the country's blind population can regain their sight, but a vast majority do not get treated out of sheer neglect or ignorance.
Besides blindness, there are about 9.6 million people who develop cataracts and about 700,000 victims of corneal blindness. Cataracts can be removed, but only about 1.2 million such operations are performed each year. And although corneal transplants can bestow new sight, there is a woeful lack of eye donors, enabling only a few thousand transplants to be performed annually.
The Blind Relief Association this year celebrates 50 years of helping the visually handicapped. As part of its celebrations, a national sports meet for the blind will be organised in October. The association runs a school, a library with 8,500 Braille books and a Touch and Tell Museum that has science and geography models as well as stuffed toys. For adults, the association runs a technical training workshop and a placement service that aims at employment opportunities in industries. It also runs a hostel for persons working in industries. The association conducts courses for teachers of blind people, but this programme is only in Hindi.
The Venu Eye Institute in Delhi, started by a group of ophthalmologists and philanthropists, works for the prevention of blindness and providing quality eyecare to the downtrodden. Says Venu's public relations officer George Abraham, "We believe in reaching out to the people in rural areas and in bringing eye care to their doorstep. Medicines, surgery and transport are provided free of cost. The costs are borne by richer patients who pay for the services." Venu runs a mobile eye care laboratory and has set up satellite hospitals and primary health centres in various places in Haryana. Between September and March, it conducts surgical eye camps in Bihar, Rajasthan, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Punjab.
Venu also has an eye bank. Says institute secretary general A P Atri, "In Delhi, we received about 800 corneas, but this is insufficient. Gujarat takes the lead in eye donation and contributed about 5,000 eyes in 1993. The success rate for corneal transplants is as high as 90 per cent." Recipients are given corneas free of cost, but the operation costs Rs 8,000, which the needy are exempted from paying.
The National Society for the Prevention of Blindness (NSPB) in Delhi publishes educational material on eyecare and organises eye camps. This year, it conducted a seminar on visual hazards in industries and their environmental effects. NSPB's Kerala branch was last year adjudged the best in disseminating eyecare information to schoolchildren. The award for the best district branch went to Una in Himachal Pradesh, which has been made a cataract-free zone.