A race against time to treat child cataracts
Finding and diagnosing children born with cataracts is a race against time.
Having cataracts as a child can mean that your sight is at risk of never properly developing. In all cases surgery needs to happen as soon as possible and if a child is still affected by cataracts by the age of eight, the chances of vision being improved following surgery decreases dramatically.
For children with cataracts in developing countries, a life without sight in already difficult circumstances can make lifting themselves out of poverty an even tougher job. Stigma and discrimination, lack of access to the necessary support in education, and simply being viewed as equal members of society with rights, are all daily challenges faced by people with disabilities in developing countries.
There is no one specific cause of cataract but bright light, poor diet and sanitation are thought to contribute. Children can be born with the condition or develop it through an eye injury, inflammation or other eye diseases.
All of the stories that we are going to be sharing with you over the next three weeks are about people involved in one of our projects in Uganda, the project is funded by Standard Chartered through its Seeing is Believing programme. The aim of the project is to reduce the prevalence of blindness in children by addressing the major causes of childhood blindness and improving accessibility to quality eye care services.
Sarah Filbey, Sightsavers’ press officer, travelled to Uganda to visit the project where she met one of the patients, seven-year-old Doreen. Doreen’s cataracts weren’t immediately visible to the naked eye; they are a ‘hidden’ type, which are harder to detect and become more apparent whenever light is shone on the eye causing the pupil to dilate. Perhaps this is partly why neither her teachers nor her family members recall exactly when she became near-blind from the cataracts.
By the time the eye health team from Benedictine Eye Hospital in Tororo took the outreach eye health clinic to Ngora hospital, close to Doreen’s home, she was relying on her father and her younger sister to guide her wherever she went. It had become very apparent to everyone, not least her class teacher Cornelia Apio, that Doreen was struggling to see.
Cornelia explained how Doreen finds it much harder to read than her classmates who aren’t visually impaired: “She holds the book right up to her face. When she does that, she can read. She sits at the front of the class. I realised there is nothing I could do for her, which is why I wanted her to get medical help.”
Cornelia was delighted when she heard that Doreen had been taken by her father to Ngora hospital and referred to Benedictine Eye Hospital to receive cataract surgery.
“I noticed her problem and I said ‘you tell papa you need to be seen!’ but she said, ‘but papa doesn’t have any money!”
Through its outreach clinics, Sightsavers’ Child Eye Health programme aims to identify children like Doreen whose families aren’t able to afford transportation or associated costs to reach larger hospitals for diagnosis and treatment, and helps to cover those costs.
One of the most effective ways of raising awareness about the location and timing of these outreach clinics, is through radio. It is vitally important that we try and reach as many people as possible to encourage them to get screened and referred for treatment before it is too late.