Last updated: November 23, 2012 4:24 pm

FT appeal brings light to West Bengal

For years, Sudipta Roy had to just accept that there was a limit to how many cataracts operations he could perform.

Lack of equipment restricted the ability of the 43-year-old eye surgeon to tackle the huge demand for his skills in the Sunderbans, one of the more remote and impoverished corners of West Bengal. Each year there are an estimated 10,000 new cases requiring treatment; those who do not get it either join a backlog of 55,000 cases. Or, eventually, they go blind.

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Two months ago that changed. With the arrival of an additional operating microscope Dr Roy and his colleagues, who operate out of the Sunderban Social Development Centre, are now in a position to double the number – previously 8,000 a year – of sight-restoring surgeries they perform, as well as tackle other conditions besides cataracts.

“It has transformed what we are doing here because we can now do two surgeries simultaneously with two surgeons,” says Gopal Pramanik, secretary of the Sunderban Social Development Centre. “We are incredibly grateful for the support provided.”

The £8,000 microscope – a Carl Zeiss 1FR – was paid for by Sightsavers and was just one small part of the £3.3m raised by last year’s FT Seasonal Appeal, in which reader donations and matching funds from Standard Chartered, the bank, and the UK government combined to produce the largest amount raised since the FT’s appeal was first launched in 2006.

This year’s seasonal appeal for the Global Fund for Children – an international body that directs funds to grassroots projects across the world that work to improve the lives of children – is launched on Monday.

Caroline Harper, Sightsavers chief executive, says that the money raised through the 2011 appeal will ensure 13m people in Africa and Asia benefit from improved from improved eye care services over the next five years. While some of the money has been targeted towards existing projects the vast majority of funds will go towards developing new projects.

“We sat down with Standard Chartered and other partners to review how we could deliver the biggest possible impact,” she says. “The result was not just about uplifting what we already do, but [to establish] four new big projects.”

The new projects, which will be rolled out over the next few years, will focus on Uganda, Sierra Leone, Pakistan and the Sunderbans, with about $1m earmarked to be spent in each.

The activities that will be supported, or established from scratch, range from the training of paediatric ophthalmologists to tackle childhood blindness in East Africa, to the creation of basic eye screening programmes in post-conflict regions and the building of new vision centres in isolated communities, such as the Sunderbans.

Ms Harper says that in Pakistan Sightsavers will do “something a little bit different” and target the appeal funds towards the treatment of diabetes-related visual impairment in the slums of the country’s main cities.

“This is a really growing problem in Asia, particularly among the poor,” she explains. Genetic predispositions, but also changing diets have exacerbated the problem.

These and the numerous other projects across the world run by Sightsavers, which began its work in the 1950s tackling river blindness in west Africa, are part of a global effort to address what remains one of the biggest problems in global health.

More than 300m people suffer visual impairment, according to the World Health Organisation. An estimated 80 per cent of these people have preventable conditions. The economic cost of visual impairment is reckoned by public health experts to be about $300bn a year.

Ms Harper says the importance of the FT appeal to Sightsavers went “way beyond the money”. It “gave us access to decision-makers that we didn’t have before”, she says. “People started looking at us as something much more than a UK-based charity.”

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