Surgery milestone for floating eye hospital

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 September, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 September, 2003, 12:00am

A floating hospital in Bangladesh has notched up its 10,000th surgery, four years after it was launched by an international charity. The hospital was set up to help impoverished disabled villagers without access to modern medical care.

Most of its operations are for cataracts, a tremendous problem in Bangladesh.

The hospital - believed to be the first of its kind in the world - was the brainchild of two blind people, Impact Foundations' president the late Sir John Wilson and Bangladeshi social worker Monsur Ahmed Chowdhury. Together, they raised US$1.5 million to build the Jibontori, or Ship of Light.

Cataract operations account for over 60 per cent of the 10,000 surgeries performed so far by volunteer doctors on board the Jibontori, named after a famous poem by Bengali Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore.

Deputy director Christina Rosario said that the annual running cost of the project, which is fully dependent on foreign aid, has risen to 10 million Bangladeshi takas (HK$1.3 million) since 1999.

'According to the World Health Organisation, over 10 per cent of the country's population is disabled and our prime objective is to help them see and walk again.'

The blindness and blurred vision caused by cataracts can be overcome with surgery. Ms Rosario said the cataract problem was rampant in far-flung areas, including remote islands, which can be accessed only through rivers and waterways.

Cataract disease in Bangladesh does not just afflict the elderly. It blinds people in their 30s and 40s, ruining lives and causing economic hardship for families.

Experts say that Bangladesh requires around 260,000 cataract operations per year to bring the situation under control.

They admit that the target is virtually unattainable as the country has only 400 trained eye surgeons. 'The overall scenario is very grim, but we are trying to do whatever we can with the limited resources at our command', Ms Rosario said.

In addition to free eye surgery, Jibontori doctors also perform orthopaedic operations and plastic surgery to help the disabled lead normal lives.

The floating hospital is built on a barge. The double-storey, custom-built medical facility is towed to remote areas by tugs. Jibontori has a permanent staff of 35, including four junior doctors and six nurses who assist surgeons from abroad.

'Most of the foreign doctors are from Britain. Some of them have come thrice in four years', Ms Rosario said.

Rayner, a British firm manufacturing intra ocular lenses, which are used to replace the original lens rendered opaque by cataracts, has donated hundreds of lenses.