“Eye care for people who have access to hospitals is very achievable, but what about the people who can’t afford it, who don’t know anything about it, or who can’t reach a hospital?” - Dr Rubini Gillani, Pakistan Country Manager

It is The Fred Hollows Foundation’s ability to do just that, and provide high quality eye care to people in some of the poorest and most remote areas of the world that has seen a dramatic surge in the number of cataract operations in the last year.

Overall, more than 98,000 people around the world had their sight restored through cataract surgery by The Fred Hollows Foundation last year.

In Laos, the number of surgeries soared from 281 to 780. In Ethiopia, where The Foundation has only just begun working, surgeries have increased from 19 to 234. And in Bangladesh, the number more than doubled last year, from almost 5,000 to 11, 936.

The Foundation’s Bridget McAloon said outreach programs have played a crucial role in the increase. In many countries these “mobile miracles” – teams of eye care workers who travel to remote villages – are the first time elderly people have received high quality eye care, she said.

“Older people in remote areas often think losing vision is just part of old age,” Bridget explains. “There’s a saying, ‘My hair goes white, my eyes go white.’”

“Until the mobile outreach service reaches them, many of them don’t even realize they have cataracts and that something can be done to help restore their sight.”

 “Part of the work of the outreach camps is education; it’s helping people to understand that the operations aren’t necessarily expensive, and that it’s not going to hurt. And that there is good follow up care.”

Bridget has watched first-hand how life-changing the outreach programs can be. Village health care workers are firstly equipped with eye care kits that include torches and screening equipment. They go from door to door and screen every person in the village.

Doctors from larger provincial hospitals then travel to smaller district hospitals to perform the scheduled cataract surgery; they’ll pack cars with microscopes and medical equipment and often drive through treacherous mountain passes to get there.

Those with cataracts then make their way – sometimes by foot or horse – to the district hospital.

“It’s heartbreaking seeing the obstacles they face sometimes getting to the hospitals,” Bridget said. “There’s often a complete lack of information, and a fear of surgery. Sometimes they can’t get there because no one in their family is able to take a day off to take them. Sometimes they are so poor they can’t afford to take their own food to the hospitals. (There are no meals provided in many developing world hospitals.)

“These outreach services mean we can reach people we’ve never been able to reach before,” Bridget said. “Three quarters of Bangledeshis live in rural areas without access to health care.”

She vividly recalls the first time she saw an elderly woman in Lao have her sight restored.

“It was a totally transformative experience,” she recalls. “I remember I couldn’t understand anything she was saying, and she couldn’t understand anything I was saying, but her wonderful toothless smile said it all. She just could not stop smiling and laughing.

“Restoring that little old lady’s sight didn’t just give her independence, it affected her whole family. It freed her up to cook, and clean and contribute to her community again. The feeling in that room when they took the bandages off was indescribable.”