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June 18, 2014

Three projects tee off as Pakistan celebrates decline in blindness

June 18, 2014

The prevalence of blindness in Pakistan has declined from 1.76 per cent in 1980 to 0.9 per cent in 2014. There has also been an increase in the cataract surgical rate; from half a cataract surgery per day back in 1989, Pakistani ophthalmologists are now performing more than 10 cataract surgeries per day, making blindness control an intervention which, unlike a majority of the country’s health programmes, is on the right trajectory.
It was against these encouraging data that three new five-year projects for the prevention and control of blindness in Pakistan were launched here Tuesday under the aegis of the National Committee for Eye Health of the Ministry of National Health Services, Regulations and Coordination (NHSRC). The festive occasion mirrored the marvels of public-private partnership as the Australia-based Fred Hollows Foundation (FHF), UK-based Sightsavers, and Germany-based CBM joined hands with the government of Pakistan to enable it to inch closer to the Vision 2020 targets for elimination of avoidable blindness.
Minister of state for NHSRC Saira Afzal Tarar was the chief guest on the occasion. She was flanked by Australian High Commissioner Peter Heyward, country manager of FHF Dr. Rubina Gillani, country director of Sightsavers UK Dr. Imam Yar Baig, inter-regional coordinator of CBM Germany Ajmal Khan, and WHO regional advisor Dr. Ismat Ullah Chaudhary, among others.
All three projects launched on Tuesday were approved in the last meeting of NCEH in September 2013. FHF has provided Australian $5.5million for the ‘Pakistan-Australia Prevention of Avoidable Blindness (PAPAB) project 2013-2017.’ This is the fifth HFH project in Pakistan since its operations in Pakistan in 1998. Through this project, FHF will focus on multiple interventions to strengthen eye care within the health systems strengthening framework of Pakistan. The project will pilot three new sub-specialties namely, glaucoma, retinopathy of prematurity (RoP),

and corneal opacity. HFH has previously executed four projects in Pakistan at a cost of Australian $20 million. Sightsavers UK has provided US $1.25 million for a five-year project titled ‘Strengthening Pakistan’s response to diabetic retinopathy.’ The project will contribute to reduction of avoidable blindness due to sight-threatening diabetic retinopathy (STDR) in three districts of Pakistan in Karachi (Gadap Town and Bin Qasim Town), Rawalpindi (Satellite Town), and Lahore (Data Gunj Bukhsh). This will be done through early detection, regular follow-up, and appropriate treatment of STDR. Sightsavers has contributed 140 million British Pounds since 1998.
CBM Germany has provided US $1.25 million for a five-year project titled ‘The Regional Cataract Program.’ This programme will focus not only on quantity but benchmarked quality of processes, visual outcomes, cost-effectiveness and patient satisfaction. At the end of the project, CBM will have contributed 50,000 cataract surgeries. CBM has contributed projects worth US $40 million in Pakistan during the last 40 years, largely by supporting the district comprehensive eye care programme. Expressing her views, Saira congratulated NCEH for having launched the projects within the stipulated timeframe. She termed continuity of system and policies as being the key to improved health outcomes and indicators. “I am not a proud minister because we have huge challenges to overcome,” she conceded.
Peter Heyward expressed how delighted his government is to be contributing to the prevention and control of blindness in Pakistan. He also articulated the vision of Fred Hollows, an ophthalmologist who believed that the greatest attribute of mankind is to help others. He believed no one in the world should go blind needlessly and that the poor should have access to the same quality of care as the rich. “Eye care in Pakistan is an area to be celebrated,” Peter said while reflecting on how public-private partnership has combined the best of both worlds to make a difference in the lives of people affected by avoidable blindness.
Prof. Dr. Asad Aslam Khan shared that NCEH is implementing its third national programme for the prevention and control of blindness. While the first two were supported by international NGOs, the third has a funding component of Rs2.9 billion contributed by the government. With reference to human resource development, Dr. Asad said the programme has produced 700 optometrists, 50 orthoptists and ophthalmic technologists each, 1200 ophthalmic technicians, 300 ophthalmic nurses, 50 community ophthalmologists, and 10 vitreoretinal specialists and paediatric ophthalmologists each.
Rubina Gillani’s speech drew the minister’s attention to how the government can lend greater ownership to blindness control interventions. Her first suggestion was that the government should list blindness as a priority non-communicable disease and allocate specific funds for it, because while NGOs can only work as catalysts, the ownership has got to come from the government and local partners. Her second suggestion was that the government should create positions for the thousands of health workers who are being trained so that they can work effectively.
She also advised in favour of creating positions for mid-level workers at the Rural Health Centres on the premise that if primary eye care is available at peoples’ doorsteps, nothing can prevent the control of blindness.
Among other speakers, Dr. Ismat-Ullah Chaudhry underlined the need to strengthen the referral system. Khadija Hahmi from Standard Chartered Bank (SCB) shared that the bank contributed US $ 2.3 million last year to the ‘Seeing is Believing’ project. “Our aim is to raise US $100 million globally by 2020, and we are on that path.” She said, the project has contributed to restoration of 56,700 eyesights across Pakistan; has touched 11 million people through training of LHWs; and aims to restore 1.7 million eye-sights by 2015. She said, 16 visually impaired people are currently employed at SCB, and their number will increase further this year.
In the end, Saira presented shields to representatives of partner agencies. The fact that the event started right on time at 3 p.m., as scheduled, showed that organisations, which value time, are bound to be ahead of the rest.

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