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Say aye to eyes!

Say aye to eyes!

Every fifth blind person in the world is an Indian. Of the 15 million blind people in India, 1.1 million suffer from corneal blindness. And, 25,000 new cases are added to this backlog annually. A compilation of data from last year shows that only 25,713 transplant procedures were conducted. In order to manage the problem, there is an urgent need to perform 100,000 transplant surgeries every year. Almost 80 per cent of the prevailing cases of blindness is avoidable – 60 per cent of it is due to cataract which can be cured with a simple 15-minute surgery and 20 per cent is due to refractive errors, which can be treated with simply a pair of spectacles.

The cornea is a transparent tissue covering the front of the eye. If it becomes cloudy from disease, injury, infection, or malnutrition, vision is dramatically reduced or often even lost. Corneal blindness can be treated by replacing the damaged cornea with a healthy human cornea. The cornea can be procured through eye donation.
We have, at hand, technical skills and a ready infrastructure for treating corneal blindness, but what is lacking is the availability of donor eye tissue. What makes the situation worse is that a majority of the patients suffering from corneal blindness are children or young adults. All efforts at establishing quality eye banks will go to waste unless general awareness and the practice of eye donation are substantially increased among the wide population of the country. So far in India, the onus and responsibility of promoting and spreading awareness about eye donation have been resting on the medical fraternity; whereas, globally, successful eye banking has been the outcome of dedicated community effort and focused societal initiative.
There are, however, certain self-perpetuating myths about eye donation which are not only false but also need to be completely uprooted from their origins. These myths broadly circumscribe to the assumptions that: a) the face/body of the dead will be left entirely disfigured if the eyes are removed from the facial cavity; 2) one will be born blind in the next birth (emanating from a belief in the cycle of birth and re-birth); 3) one will not be able to see God once they knock on the doors of heaven. In fact, though, all religions endorse and support eye donation as a noble act.
Some facts about eye donation need to be borne in mind: First, eyes need to be donated within six to eight hours of physical death. Second, anyone can be a donor, irrespective of age, sex, blood group or religion. Third, one cornea is grafted on to one person only. Switch off the fans, keep the air conditioner or cooler running and place wet cotton over the closed eyelids, as it will assist in keeping the eye tissue moist and raise the head with a pillow. Those who have been users of spectacles, those diagnosed with hypertension and diabetics can also donate without causing damage to the recipient. Finally, the total removal time is brief, only about 15-20 minutes.
Eyes can be donated even if the deceased had not formally pledged their eyes during their lifetime. The eye bank team will immediately reach the donor's home to collect the eyes. This service is conducted free of any cost. Tolerance, sharing, caring and giving have been synonymous with Indian culture. It is an integral part of our heritage. It is then ironic to hear about the paucity of eye tissue – a gift which is required to be made only when we are no more and are eyes are of no use to us.
The gap between the need and the availability will grow wider unless 1.5 per cent of annual deaths in India (eight to nine million) or about 240,000 are converted into successful eye donations. Only then will we be able to achieve a zero waiting list for corneal transplant.
To make this possible, eye donation has to be ushered in as a family tradition.
(The author is Managing Director of Venu Eye Institute & Research Centre. Views expressed are strictly personal.)

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