One third of the world’s visually challenged — 15 million people — live in India. Lack of eye donors in the country is one of the reasons for this situation, said Father George Kannanthanam, founder-director of The Project Vision.
Father Kannanthanam gave the example of Monsignor Leslie Moras who suffered from keratoconus, a congenital eye problem where the cornea tends to become conical instead of spherical. The monsignor required a cornea transplant, but none were available in the country due to a lack of donations.
“I had to wait for over a year as donated eyes were imported from Sri Lanka and there was long waiting list to get a keratopkasty or corneal graft,” Monsignor Moras said.
“I was only 25 years old when my eye condition was diagnosed as keratoconus,” he said.
Father Kannanthanam said that there needs to be a growing awareness about blindness and vision impairment as a health issue in India. “Our goal is to educate people about blindness prevention and the need to donate one’s eyes so that another can see,” he said.
Dr M Sowmyalatha of M.C. Modi Charitable Eye Hospital, Bangalore, said anyone can pledge to donate their eyes after death except those suffering from specific diseases. Eyes should be removed within six hours after death.
The cornea transplant success rate is 80-98 percent depending on various factors like the type of corneal transplant done, condition of recipient eye before surgery and comorbidity of the recipient or the donor.
“In case graft becomes decompensated, one can go in for a repeat corneal transplant,” Sowmyalatha said. “But now with advanced grafting techniques rejection is far lesser,” she said.
Monsignor Moras said he underwent repeated corneal surgeries.
His first surgery for his left eye was done in 1983 and repeated six years later. He had to undergo a third graft in 2014 following a cataract surgery. After his first corneal graft for his right eye in 1993, he had to go in for a repeat 22 years later in London.
“Though I underwent repeated corneal grafts, I have been able to teach in St. Philomena’s College, Mysore, for more than three decades and also administer the College as principal for 23 years. Currently, I am the episcopal vicar for Education and Health in Mysore Diocese,” he said.
About 300 people have regained their sight through corneal collections coordinated by Project Vision.
“More than 500,000 people have pledged to donate their eyes after death due to our efforts,” said Father Kannanthanam.
Sebi Thomas, a businessman and a resident of Bangalore, in southern Karnataka state, who has been a ‘vision ambassador’ for the past 12 years said, “we spread awareness on eye and organ donation.”
Thomas has helped gain 120 donations for Project Vision. One of the donors was his young son, Jacob Sebastian, who died of a snake bite in 2016.
“The solace in his death is the fact that his eyes have lit up somebody’s life,” he said.
Father Kannanthanam described Project Vision as a movement that is part of a network consisting of other agencies, universities, NGOs, and firms worldwide. Besides India, it has a presence in the United States, Sri Lanka, Nepal, the Philippines and China.
Links have been created in the United Nations and UNICEF with a view to develop this as a global movement, he said.
The Claretian priest said he had lived for 12 years with the visually challenged and wanted to do something for them; so he started Project Vision in 2013 in Bangalore.
Project Vision’s main objective is to bridge the gap between demand and supply of corneas. India collected around 53,000 corneas in 2019, as against a demand of 140,000 annually.
“We have so far organised more than 6,000 cataract operations for free. Our Rural Eye Care campus also reaches out to people who require rehabilitation support,” he said.
Father Kannanthanam, who is also secretary Catholic Hospitals of India, said that about 20 percent of all visually challenged people could see again with a corneal transplant. “So, it is important to increase cornea collection,” he said.
The Pastoral Conference of the North Eastern States, many religious congregations, bishops and dioceses have made resolutions to support eye donation.
“About six parishes in Bangalore Archdiocese have already become fully eye-pledged parishes,” he said.
“Another major goal is to develop facilities for visually challenged persons to sustain themselves,” he said.
Soy Joseph, a legal consultant who works for visually challenged in southern states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, said: “We get people to sponsor items sold by the visually challenged so that they are able afford a decent living.”
He said about 90 percent of blind people in India live below the poverty line.
During the 2014 Chennai floods Project Vision helped repair the damaged houses of 150 families of the visually challenged.
“We spread awareness on the issue on eye donation through blind walks which entails a short walk wherein a visually challenged leads people with sight but blindfolded so that they get a feel of sightlessness,” he said.
“Both Tamil Nadu and Kerala have a toll-free number — 104 — that anyone can call for any kind health support or even to donate or pledge their eyes,” Joseph said.
“We also organize tournaments and competitions for the visually challenged,” he said.
Blind students are taught free in Tamil Nadu government colleges. So, they are encouraged to study.
Kasimani Chinnan, vice president of the National Federation of Blind, who teaches vocational courses in a government school for persons with visual disabilities, said “we teach them computers, web designing and many other vocational courses.”
“Our students are working in Infosys and other IT companies. The visually challenged are second to none, they are very meticulous in what they do,” said Chinnan, a post graduate in English literature, who lost vision in childhood due to small pox.
To mark the World Sight Day, Oct. 8, Project Vision launched a global speech competition: “Voice of the Eye”.
Anyone can send in a 90-second recorded speech on the theme “an appeal for eye donation” and the best entries from each state or country will then come live on a virtual platform and compete for a prize on Dec. 3, International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Anyone can participate by registering in www.theprojectvision.org. The purpose is to get more and more people to know and talk about eye donation. One can also pledge one’s eyes through the website, added Father Kannanthanam.