ORBIS mission an eye-opener for novice in India

October 15, 2007

ORBIS is a New York City-based nonprofit global development organization dedicated to blindness prevention and treatment in developing countries. A health-care journalist describes her recent experience in India shadowing those associated with the program, which observed its 25th anniversary this year.

Keypoints:

It took 2 long days and 2 overnight plane rides from California, but I made it to India. This country, second only to China in population, tickles the nose with wafts of curries and chicken tikka masala (chicken baked in tomato gravy) and permeates every pore.

India is full of constant juxtaposition-cell phones against a backdrop of antique auto rickshaws and ancient bicycles in this vast country of 1.13 billion people. Millions of motorized vehicles clog the streets, and drivers ignore traffic signals as the Hindus' sacred cows roam freely.

My first stop was Mumbai (formerly Bombay), where as a health-care journalist, I prepared to shadow the crew of the ORBIS Flying Eye Hospital and visit some of the small villages where ORBIS has left its mark by providing hospital-based training and building a blindness-prevention infrastructure. ORBIS is a New York City-based nonprofit global development organization that observed its 25th anniversary this year.

Since 1982, when the organization's Flying Eye Hospital-a DC-10 jet aircraft-first took off, ORBIS programs have enhanced the skills of more than 154,000 eye-care professionals in 85 countries, making eye-care treatment possible for millions of people.

Preventing childhood blindness is one of the organization's priorities, and ORBIS has developed a strong network in India through 14 pediatric ophthalmology units. Of the 400 million children in India, 320,000 are bilaterally blind, constituting one-fifth of the world's blind children. Another 450,000 suffer from blindness in one eye, and 9.2 million have significant refractive errors.

As many as 50% of them could be cured if adequate facilities and trained staff were available. Unfortunately, most of the 12,000 ophthalmologists in India practice in urban areas, whereas 75% of the population lives in rural settings. That is where ORBIS comes in.