Burma is home to tens of thousands of cataract sufferers. The condition is the most common cause of blindness in the world, yet a simple surgery can restore sight in most cases.
In a country where crippling poverty pushes medical services out of reach, eight percent of people in rural areas are blind. For two-thirds of those, the cause is cataracts, or a clouding of the eye’s lens.Burma has only 200 working ophthalmologists, most of whom operate in Rangoon and Mandalay. That has left Burma with a backlog of 600,000 cataract operations, according to Australian NGO the Razco Eye Foundation.
Now, a team of Chinese doctors is in Rangoon to restore sight to some of those people.
The team is part of an initiative organised by the China Foundation for Peace and Development in cooperation with Myanmar Alinyaung. Together, since 2011, they have worked to restore sight to thousands of visually impaired people in Burma.
The medical team is from China’s southern Yunnan Province and is currently conducting free eye operations in Rangoon.
One patient, 71-year-old Htay Kyi, was overjoyed at having her vision returned to her.
“I was blind but now I can see. I am so grateful to this organisation and to my country,” she said.
The Myanmar Alinyaung foundation is overseen by Burma’s ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). After replacing Than Shwe’s military junta as Burma’s government in 2010, the party has consistently produced budgets by which military spending dwarfs funds for health.
In 2014, the USDP spent just 3.38 percent of Burma’s budget on health. That is compared to 29 percent splurged on the military.
But now, some within the ruling party say they believe that clearing cataracts could improve the party’s image in the lead up to next year’s general election.
“I think that this programme could help our party achieve victory in one way or another, although this is not our main objective here,” said Dr Nay Lin, who is both the head of Myanmar Alinyaung and a USDP parliamentary representative for Rangoon.
Whatever the motivation, this latest initiative, which began on Thursday and will run until 7 September, is a blessing for each of the 200 patients who will receive treatment.
Burmese doctors will also be trained to perform cataract surgeries across the country. They hope to enable as many people as possible to see their loved ones again.