No barriers to saving sight in Myanmar

Asia’s best known eye surgeon, Dr Sanduk Ruit, has begun the second of two marathon outreach programs in Myanmar to restore sight to more than 1,000 people.     

The world-renowned ophthalmologist, who is Medical Director of the Tilganga Institute of Ophthalmology in Kathmandu, is leading cataract operations in Bago, 70 kilometres outside Yangon.

“The Myanmar outreach is part of a comprehensive eye care program that Tilganga and The Fred Hollows Foundation are undertaking throughout Asia to restore sight in remote or isolated regions,” said Dr Ruit.

The country has one of the highest rates of blindness in the world, peaking at almost one in 10 people in rural areas. Of this, 60 per cent of cases are caused by cataracts.

In the past week Dr Ruit and a team of Nepalese and Burmese doctors have operated on more than 600 patients at Yangon Eye Hospital in Myanmar’s commercial capital.

Those undergoing surgery range in age from the mid 40s to late 70s. Many have had difficulty seeing for years. One expressed a quiet hope that he could read again and take on at least part time work. Another said she wanted to be able to care for her grandsons properly.        

Dr Ruit pioneered small incision cataract surgery that needs no stitches, a method that can take just minutes per patient to complete and one he is keen to share.

“What we have been doing throughout the world is not only increasing the surgical quantity but the surgical quality. We have come up with a system which is efficient and cost effective and gives very good results,” he said.

Dr Ruit says much more needs to be done at the community level.

“A problem in Myanmar is the lack of properly trained support paramedics. I think that the NGOs and supporters should get together and see if we can establish a separate paramedical training program.”

Most of the sight restoring work in Myanmar is occurring thanks to the support of Australians through The Fred Hollows Foundation.

The Foundation’s CEO, Brian Doolan, says this could be just the start of a long term project.

“Well Myanmar is in the process of opening up. It does have a very sympathetic Minister of Health who is saying ‘Yes - eye health does have a priority… eye health is cheap, it’s quick and it has a huge impact’,” he said.

Doolan says it would be immoral not to treat people with avoidable blindness, despite reservations in some quarters about Myanmar’s political system.      

“Eyes don’t know politics. We work in some very hard areas. We work in Eritrea and North Korea. Blindness doesn’t pick people according to their political persuasion.”
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