Africa and Latin America have the highest rates in the world of treatable sight problems, but a Spanish NGO is finding innovative ways to reverse this situation.
Conditions like glaucoma or cataracts, which are easily treated in developed countries, often go unattended in many poorer countries that are struggling with more serious medical challenges like HIV or malaria.
The London-based International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness, IAPB, reports 161 million people suffer from uncorrected eye problems and of these, 100 million have operable cataracts. Another 510 million are short-sighted.
By far the largest proportion of people with sight problems — around 90% — live in the world’s poorest regions, the agency said. About 55% are women.
The Foundation Ojos del Mundo, Spanish for Eyes of the World, has been working for more than 20 years to help people whose sight problems could be easily corrected.
With three projects in Africa and one in Latin America, the foundation aims to offer aid and train local doctors to do the work.
It is a daunting task.
In Western sub-Saharan Africa, 18.8% of the population suffer from vision loss, but this rises to 21.8% in southern sub-Saharan Africa, according to IAPB figures. These figures are exceeded only in South Asia, where the sight loss stands at 22.2%.
This compares with 4.8% in Western Europe and 3.6% in North America.
Across the Atlantic Ocean, the figure for Latin America is between 12.3% and 13.4%, according to IAPB.
Ojos del Mundo, a Barcelona-based NGO, treats avoidable eye conditions like cataracts or glaucoma and lazy eyes through direct intervention or by training local people to do the work.
The foundation has projects treating Saharawis who have fled the Western Sahara and are living in refugee camps in Algeria as well as in centers in Mali, Bolivia and Mozambique.
Since it began in 2001, Ojos del Mundo has restored the sight of more than 37,000 people and trained 13,000 local specialists.
Nuria Roman, head of strategic collaborations for Ojos del Mundo, said preventable blindness caused poverty in many countries because people who were unable to see were unable to work.
“In many cases, these are conditions like cataracts or reading problems which can be reversed easily by access to simple operations or even glasses,” she told VOA.
“In the countries in which we work, like Mali which is very poor and has problems with AIDS and malaria, sight problems are not regarded as serious enough to warrant help from the state. We train doctors to become ophthalmologists and then a smaller number will become retina specialists.”
In order to raise awareness of their work, the NGO has enlisted the help of Spanish actor Javier Bardem, who has donated a photograph of his eye as part of a new fundraising campaign called irisesoftheworld.org.
The image will be sold as a unique, digital non-fungible token (NFT) and a photographic print authenticated by the actor as part of the irises of the world campaign. The auction started on September 29 and ends on October 6.
Bardem, who won an Oscar in 2008 for best supporting actor in “No Country for Old Men,” told VOA he backed the campaign because he wanted to help people who lacked access to basic eye health care.
“I think Ojos del Mundo does extraordinary work. In a matter of hours, people who had been blind for years recover their sight. People who, unfortunately, do not have access to standard medical care for geographical, economic and social reasons, are able to see again,” he said in written answers to questions from VOA.
“Being able to help perform, help a miracle like this, was the main reason I wanted to support them,” he said.
Bardem added that eyes were vital for him as an actor.
“A vast array of emotions come through our sight and are also transmitted through our eyes. At the end of the day, every sense counts on the creation of any fantasy, and the eyes play a very important role,” he said.
In Bolivia, Ojos del Mundo worked in the El Alto community and the rural areas of La Paz, located in the high Andes at an altitude of 4,000 meters. About 70% of the population there has been classified as poor or extremely poor.
Before the NGO arrived in 2003, there was no ophthalmic care system, which meant those who did not have the resources to travel to the capital often became blind or suffered with sight problems which could be treated easily.
The NGO trained ophthalmologists and worked with Bolivian health services so they could treat local people.
In Mozambique, when Ojos del Mundo started work in 2002, there were only six ophthalmologists for 20 million people, far below the level recommended by the World Health Organization. The NGO started training schemes for local doctors to treat people for eye problems.
The foundation has worked to address the widespread lack of information about eye diseases among children and adults.
Ojos del Mundo did not want to speculate on how much Bardem’s NFT would raise at auction, but the highest bid so far was $12,910.
The reserve price of $8,930 would pay for 1,300 eye tests, while $29,777 would fund four years of training for an ophthalmologist. A bid of $49,621 would pay for 715 cataract operations.
Roman thanked Bardem for offering an image of his eye to raise awareness of Ojos del Mundo’s work in the world.
She said the foundation wanted to attract attention to their campaign by inviting a series of well-known celebrities to donate images of their own eyes. Without revealing the identity, she said later this year a “worldwide star” will follow Bardem’s example.
Bardem and his wife, fellow Oscar winner Penelope Cruz, have supported a series of charitable causes, donating money to rebuild homes after the Haiti earthquake in 2010 and raising funds for the Open Arms project which rescues people crossing the Mediterranean.