An article by The Countess of Wessex for World Sight Day


In her first newspaper and online article for The Telegraph, The Countess of Wessex argues the case for making sure that preventable conditions causing blindness are eradicated by 2020.

It is an important first step in creating a world where no-one is needlessly blind and where everyone with unavoidable vision loss can live to their full potential.

For anyone who experiences the loss of sight, it can be overwhelming. Dealing with the practical and emotional impact of changes to your vision can take time and a great deal of support.

We are fortunate in the United Kingdom that support is widely available. This is not the case in much of the developing world, where 90% of the world's blind people live. There, the difference between being able to see or not can literally be a matter of life and death.

The tragic fact is that an astonishing 80% of the world's visually impaired people lose their sight needlessly through preventable eye conditions. To cure or prevent these diseases costs from as little as £10. But still there are 285million blind and visually impaired throughout the world.

The reality for many blind people in developing countries is that they have little or no hope of accessing treatment or information on what preventable measures they should take. They are often subjected to a life of begging on the streets or need the permanent support of their already over stretched families.

Since 2003 I have been Patron of VISION 2020, The Right to Sight, and two years ago I was made Global Ambassador for the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness (IAPB). I recently returned from Kolkata in India where I saw the work of one of V2020’s key partners, ORBIS, first hand.

ORBIS runs the extraordinary Flying Eye Hospital, a converted DC-10 plane which travels to developing countries performing crucial sight-saving surgery. Staffed by volunteer eye surgeons, anaesthetists and nurses from the best eye hospitals in the world, it offers world class surgery in situ and a teaching legacy to local eye doctors.

During my time with them I saw them perform everything from the most simple cataract surgery using basic cost effective techniques, to a complex prosthetic surgery on a man who had not been able to see for fourteen years. Each surgery was filmed and shown live to a classroom of local eye surgeons.

The next day I visited the local partner hospital where the patients had been taken to recover. There I saw the results of the operations; the miracle of sight having been restored.

The children whose lives had been on hold since their eyes clouded over could not have been more excited as they showed off how many fingers they could count and how they could now colour in pictures without going over the lines.

The man who had not seen in fourteen years told me how he thanked God for his good fortune and that now he would no longer have to beg for food. He was looking forward to searching for work, but not before he had seen the faces of the two daughters he had not been able to see for so many years.

My experience in India mirrored those I have had elsewhere including in Bangladesh and Tanzania. In the foothills of Kilimanjaro, in the back of a Land Rover miles from the nearest medical facility, I saw a lady having treatment for trachoma, a very unpleasant condition which, if left untreated, results in the eyelid turning inwards.

Because of the lack of rural facilities patients rub their painful and irritated eyes in a desperate attempt for relief, only to be rendered blind over time. Several months earlier this lady had walked for two days to receive treatment on one eye and had come back for the second.

An hour after her surgery the lady came over, showing me how well she was, and thanking the medics profusely. Grateful and happy, she began her two day long walk home, her sight restored.

I can understand why the volunteer surgeons who do this work give of themselves so freely time after time, giving up their precious holiday to travel around the globe and make the world ofdifference to countless individuals. The restoration of someone's sight is a unique and privileged event to witness, although sometimes things don’t always happen quite as expected.

One surgeon told me that when he was about to remove the bandages of a man he had treated in Southern Africa the man asked for his family to leave the room. Thinking this was due to the fact that he may not want his loved ones to see his emotion when his sight was restored to him the surgeon agreed.

Once the family had gone the man turned to him and said, “Now tell me Doctor. Is my wife still beautiful?!”

In 1999 the World Health Organisation, together with the IAPB, jointly launched the VISION 2020 global initiative. VISION 2020 was established to eliminate the main causes of avoidable blindness by the year 2020. Since its inception it has made a significant difference to the way Governments, charities and the private sector work together to restore sight and prevent eye health problems across the world.

Every year the eye health sector celebrates World Sight Day when hundreds of activities are organised to draw attention to the huge issue of preventable blindness. This year the sector is encouraging everyone to have an eye exam. It is the first opportunity for diagnosis of practically every eye condition, many of which can lead to blindness if untreated.

Those are the very skills that wonderful eye health organisations such as ORBIS and the IAPB are taking round the world; they now need support to give them the means to help even more people. Fundraising is vital and I am hugely grateful to those who support the life changing work these organisations do.

It is an important first step in creating a world where no-one is needlessly blind and where everyone with unavoidable vision loss can live to their full potential.

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