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Eyes wide open

  • Published at 05:07 pm October 26th, 2018
The goal for clear vision Photo: BIGSTOCK

The fight against blindness can be won

Bangladesh has been making significant strides in its development journey over the last decade. The most recent milestone came with the publication of the Human Capital Index (HCI), recently launched at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund’s annual meetings on the Indonesian island of Bali. 

The index, measuring national performance across health care and health, reflects Bangladesh’s attainments in these sectors, with an HCI higher than the regional average, including that of neighbouring India. 

Improvements in Bangladesh’s health care system in recent times has been widely recognized --  and is an expected outcome of expanding economic participation, access to education, and developments in communication and transport networks. Yet, inevitably, there remain areas where we can still do more. 

There are around 750,000 people suffering from blindness in Bangladesh, and millions with varying degrees of visual impairment. Blindness and visual impairment limits our human potential, impacting educational attainment, and employment opportunities with long-term implications for livelihoods and the economic well-being of individuals, families, and communities. The darkness of blindness has a silver lining of sorts however, with experts claiming 80% of all blindness cases to be curable through intervention.

So why is the number still so high? While there can be a number reasons, chief among them would have to be a lack of awareness. 

Take the case of Amena, a grandmother of seven who her family claims is around 90 years old. 

Amena lives in the outskirts of Dhaka, and is a stone-breaker by profession, feeding the city’s voracious demand for construction material. When Amena first started suffering from cataracts, she thought it was nothing more than an inconvenience. But her condition soon took a turn for the worse, and for two or three months she was completely blind. 

It was only later, through an outreach effort by a Sightsavers-supported Vision Centre program, did she realize her condition was treatable, and she would go on to make a full recovery. 

Lack of awareness can also lead to unwillingness of patients to “go under the knife.” An eye-health camp in Dashpara, a small village in Bakerganj, Barisal by Fred Hollows Foundation found a high incidence of cataract. 

But when informed they would need a simple procedure to correct the impairment, none of them were willing -- they were fearful of the unknown. 

It took much reasoning by the community leaders, led by Iva Rani Dutta, principal of the local school Prafulla Bidyapith, to finally convince them to agree to the procedures, all of which were successful.

Then there is also the challenge of accessibility, with distant hard-to-reach communities, often lacking the means to access formal health care support. 

When Standard Chartered started working one of Friendship’s floating hospitals, providing eye-care for coastal communities, our surveys revealed that 80% (coincidentally the same percentage as the national preventable blindness rate) of the respondents  stated that if not for the intervention, they would have nowhere to go, and would have gone untreated.

Anecdotes such as these are not isolated incidents. These are stories we run across in eye-health camp after eye-health camp, stories of how small interventions can have big impacts in the lives of the less privileged when it comes to visual impairment. 

It is stories such as these that inspired Standard Chartered Bank Bangladesh’s first eye-health intervention with Ispahani Islamia Eye Institute and Hospital 15 years ago in 2003. This seminal intervention sparked the bank’s global flagship community engagement program Seeing is Believing, which has gone on to raise $100 million -- two years ahead of target, reaching 167 million people through 184 projects across 37 countries. 

Over the 15-year journey of Seeing is Believing in Bangladesh, we are proud to have had partners such as Islamia, IAPB, Sight Savers, Orbis International, Hellen Keller Foundation, Fred Hollows and Friendship, enabling us to touch the lives of over 1.4 million people in Bangladesh. 

The fight against preventable blindness continues in full force, and with the public, private, and developmental sectors closely collaborating towards the nation’s Vision 2020 goals, this is a fight that can certainly be won. 

Bitopi Das Chowdhury is Country Head of Corporate Affairs, Brand & Marketing, Standard Chartered Bank. She also the leads the bank’s sustainability agenda, including locally developed programs under Seeing is Believing.