Surgery lifts veil of darkness for Myanmar's blind


BAGON, Myanmar (AP) — Five decades of isolation, military rule and woeful health care have left Myanmar with a particularly high rate of blindness. Now the veil of darkness is starting to lift, thanks in part to an "assembly line" surgical procedure that allows cataracts to be removed safely, without stitches, through two small incisions.

Nepalese surgeon Sandut Ruit, who helped pioneer the technique, oversaw nearly 1,300 operations at two massive eye camps in 10 days in October, with dozens of local ophthalmologists looking on and helping.

Despite improvements over the last two decades, the vast majority still use a microincision surgical technique that requires two sutures. Doctors were confident the no-stitch procedure — cheap, easy to learn and taking as little as five minutes — would catch on quickly.

"This is a turning point in our cataract history," said Dr. Tin Win, the chief of Yangon Eye Hospital. He said his goal is to have all 60 eye centers in the nation of 60 million using the procedure by the end of next year. He says he will pass on the information to all doctors, together with training manuals and videos, at a nationwide eye conference in early November.

"If we succeed, we can double our cataract surgical rate," he said. "We can start getting rid of our cataract backlog."

Several organizations focused on preventing blindness have focused on Myanmar as a country in particular need of help. A 2005 survey conducted by the South Australian Institute of Ophthalmology in the rural Meiktila district of central Myanmar found that 8.1 percent of the population there was blind.

Ruit, who travels throughout the developing world holding free mass eye camps, was working in Myanmar for the first time.

He and his team were initially scheduled to perform 1,000 surgeries, but added nearly 300 patients due to the overwhelming response by potential candidates.

After the operation, some patients expressed hope they would be able to work again. Others were eager to see the faces of their children and grandchildren.