Cataract Operations for the Tamil Poor in the Vanni

Ranjith Perera, reporting from Kilinochchi

Even as Britain’s Channel 4 was airing what it termed were images of ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’, hundreds of Tamil civilians living in Sri Lanka’s war-ravaged Wanni region were expressing gratitude after having their eyesight restored with cataract operations performed by leading surgeons at eye camps in Vavuniya and Kilinochchi. The camps organised by the government as part of Sri Lanka’s Vision 2020 program were held to coincide with the country’s two main Buddhist festivals of Vesak and Poson in May and June respectively.

Vision 2020 is a global initiative initiated by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to combat blindness which has become a major public health issue all over the world. “There are 45 million blind people in the world and another 314 million people who have some visual defect,” said Dr. Palitha Mahipala, Additional Secretary to the Ministry of Health. Mahipala who accompanied Sri Lankan legislator Namal Rajapaksa on an inspection tour of the eye camp at the Kilinochchi General Hospital on the final day explaining further said, “One in every two hundred people in the world has either blindness or some visual defect. Eighty percent of them could be either prevented or are easily treatable.”“Most of those who benefited (from this eye camp) are the poorest of the poor,” says a senior doctor from the Kilinochchi General Hospital who declined to be named. “They could possibly be the most poor in the northern province. That is why they have waited to get it (the cataract operation) done free of charge at the nearest location possible as they don’t have the money even for transport (to Vavuniya),” he added. The beneficiaries are those who lost everything during the conflict and are now beginning to recover.

Walking through the corridors of the hospital which though ransacked, remained intact during the final phase of Sri Lanka’s conflict, you see both men and women in separate wards sitting standing or sleeping on the ground on camping mattresses. All of them have a bandaged eye signifying that they have undergone the surgery to remove the cataract and had an artificial lens implanted.

The program is organised by the Ministry of Health of the Cental Government, the Provincial Ministry of Health and the Tharunyata Hetak Organisation chaired by Parliamentarian Namal Rajapaksa. Among those accompanying him are Governor, Northern Province, G.A. Chandrasiri and Parliamentarian Murugesu Chandrakumar.

The government has provided lenses free of charge and the total cost per patient is around US$ 900 (Rs. 100,000.00).

The Eye Centre at the Kilinochchi General Hospital was conceived during a chance meeting between a Sri Lanka Army officer and a charity worker from the Eye Foundation in Kandy in Central Sri Lanka. What followed was a regular eye screening program by Dr. Damien from the General Hospital Vavuniya, who travelled to Kilinochchi every Saturday to conduct the clinic.

Through this screening 15-20 cataract patients were identified each week and they were operated on at the Vavuniya General Hospital. These patients were from the resettlement areas including Vavuniya North, Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu and Mannar.

“Patients from Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu faced difficulties in attending the clinics in Vavuniya and after discussions with Doctors Mahipala and Damien, Dr. Charith Fonseka’s team was arranged to perform the operations in Kilinochchi with the sponsorship of John Keells,”explained the head of the Kilinochchi General Hospital.

The eye camp at the Kilinochchi General Hospital was conducted on 14th and 15th June 2011. Dr. Charith Fonseka Senior Eye Surgeon of the Eye Hospital in Colombo performed the operations assisted by a team of 40. Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Health received ready support from the International Sight Savers Organisation, Colombo’s blue-chip John Keells and leading private bank the Commercial Bank.

Earlier, 342 cataract patients were operated on at the Vavuniya General Hospital by Dr. Shamintha Amaratunga, Consultant Eye Surgeon, Vijaya Kumaratunga Memorial Eye Hospital, assisted by a by a 33-member team. The eye camp in Vavuniya was held to coincide with Buddhism’s holiest day last month and was conducted over three days with the assistance of Relief Direct and the Vavuniya Sathya Sai Seva Centre.

Project Organiser for Relief Direct for Destitutes, Kannan spoke warmly of the unity displayed among the patients from different ethnicities and the assistance extended by various organisations.

He acknowledged the role played by the Sri Lanka Red Cross who provided volunteers for the project and the Sai Samithi which provided buses and accommodation for the patients. He also appreciated the role played by the private sector partners, Sinbon Bakers, Coca Cola, Silva Stores and Ozone Mineral Water. “Without their help we can’t do a lot of things,” Kannan emphasised.

“It’s very successful. I’d like to see another eye camp in Vavuniya again,” said Kannan. Kilinochchi’s Medical Superintendent agreed, “This is a timely help by the Ministry of Health, Vision 2020 and other donors.”

More and more in the Wanni are seeing a new dawn.

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