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Treating Blindness Improves the Economies of Low- and Middle-income Countries

By Gina Yu, Global Health Media Fellow
Photo courtesy of Ace Kvale and the Himalayan Cataract Project.

In a remote village in Ethiopia, a man dances and bursts into high-pitched, celebratory ululation. He has just had cataract surgery and is able to see for the first time in decades.

Geoff Tabin, MD, The Fairweather Professor of Ophthalmology and a member of the core leadership of Stanford Global Health, described the scene during a research seminar on the public health impact of his work at Stanford on Nov 12.

Dr. Tabin’s mission is to help eliminate treatable blindness. As the first ophthalmologist to climb the highest peak of every continent, he’s used to big challenges.

Through the non-profit he co-founded with Nepalese eye surgeon Dr. Sanduk Ruit, the Himalayan Cataract Project, Dr. Tabin and implementing partners from dozens of countries have helped restore sight to over 1 million people worldwide. Tabin and Ruit have also taught their cost-effective cataract surgery techniques in some of the most remote countries, including Bhutan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Myanmar, Rwanda, Uganda and North Korea.

Their work provides hope to patients, many not aware that their blindness can be fixed with a relatively quick, low-risk surgery.

“It was just accepted: you get old, your hair turns white, your eye turns white, and you die,” said Dr. Tabin. “Another name for a blind person in Nepal is a mouth with no hands…It’s a huge burden for a family to have a blind person.”

And this burden is expensive. To demonstrate how blindness can perpetuate poverty, Dr. Tabin describes the child who must care for a blind relative instead of attending school or the patient with cataracts that cannot contribute to society.

Treating blindness has immediate positive economic impact. According to Dr. Tabin, for every $1 spent on cataract surgery, $4 is added to Ethiopia’s economy.

Not to mention the priceless gift of sight. On the reaction of people receiving cataract surgery who were previously depressed by blindness, Dr. Tabin said, “They just blossomed back to life. It was the first crazy miracle I saw.”

Though his work is clearly beneficial, there are still challenges in delivering care. Dr. Tabin discussed how providing an antibiotic treatment for river blindness in South Sudan has been difficult because of the South Sudanese Civil War, though the supply of medication is there.

Another new challenge is diabetes. He spoke of the increasing rate of obese people, and the difficulty in changing lifestyle patterns to prevent eye disease secondary to poor health decisions.

Despite these challenges, Dr. Tabin continues to perform and teach his high-output surgeries, passionate about his work.

“I’ve been doing this since 1994, and I still get such a thrill the first day after surgery and [witnessing] the joy. There’s no other miracle like what happens…after the patch comes off,” he said.

Steven Goodman, MD, PhD, MPH, Prof. of Medicine and of Health Research and Policy, and Geoff Tabin. MD, Fairweather Professor of Ophthalmology and a member of the core leadership of Stanford Global Health