Source: Radio Netherlands Worldwide
|Photo Zubeida Mustafa|
Inzeman is a teenager living on the outskirts of Karachi, Pakistan’s financial centre. Two years ago, the young boy stopped going to school because he felt his vision was falling. His father, a low-paid cab driver, could not afford to take Inzeman to a private hospital for a transplant to treat the corneal opacity that was affecting his eyesight. Which meant that Inzeman was facing a bleak future.
By Zubeida Mustafa in Karachi
Pakistan’s public health system leaves much to be desired. Spending only 0.7 per cent of its GDP on health, the state cannot provide the majority of its citizens with decent medical care. Pakistan has a population of 180 million, but only 965 hospitals. And there’s just one hospital bed available for every 1515 people. The health statistics reflect the government’s failure in this sector. Nearly 76 out of 1,000 infants die in childbirth in Pakistan – compared to 34 out of 1,000 in India, or 6 out of 1,000 in the US.
Life can be nasty, brutish and short for the average Pakistani who can barely make ends meet. For the millions who can’t pay for the good medical care available in the private sector, their only option is to either visit the local quack and risk even more serious complications, or reconcile themselves to their illness and wait for an inevitable death.
Considering the statistics, Inzeman was extraordinarily lucky. On the advice of friends, his worried father took him to the Layton Rehmatullah Benevolent Trust eye hospital that has made it its mission to create “a better Pakistan by preventing the suffering caused by blindness and other eye ailments”. Here the young man received a corneal transplant that restored his vision in one eye. When I spoke to him and his father after a year, I could discern the cheer in their voices.
The LRBT, as it is popularly called, is an eye hospital that boasts of highly trained ophthalmologists and state-of-the-art technology. What is more, it does not charge its patients. Set up in 1984 by two friends, one an Englishman (who acquired Pakistani nationality), the LRBT’s motto is “no man, woman or child should go blind simply because he/she cannot afford the treatment”.
Today the organisation has set up 16 hospitals and 42 eye community centres in Pakistan. It is pursuing its programme of expansion relentlessly. Just in the last year it treated nearly 2 million patients including more than 200,000 surgeries. At a private hospital, Inzeman’s treatment would have cost the equivalent of several months’ wages for his father.
Pakistanis are generous in philanthropy, but they do not easily come forward when it comes to organ donation. Corneas are imported from Sri Lanka, which makes the procedure costly. Inzeman’s success story owes much to the fact that he got his cornea from a local donor, Chris Abbas, a schoolteacher and artist.
Chris, originally British, had come to Pakistan in the 50’s after her marriage to Ghulam Abbas, a renowned Urdu writer, and we’d been friends for years. She was shocked at Pakistanis’ possessiveness about their bodies and the collective fear of donating organs after death. Chris regularly donated blood to the blood bank all her life, and she willed her eyes for transplant to the LRBT. She would have been happy to know how much that act changed Inzeman’s life.
LRBT’s contribution in the field of eye care is widely acknowledged. The country is estimated to have 1.5 million people who are visually impaired. Although Pakistan has signed the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, the government has not ratified it. So the blind in Pakistan face immense problems.
Until recently, blind people were not allowed to open a bank account, and visually impaired exam students are not allowed to use voice-activated computer programmes – facilities taken for granted elsewhere.
LRBT is a pioneer in the field. It claims to have treated one out of every three eye patients in Pakistan. Following its lead, other eye medical centres for the poor have been launched with the hope that a changing public awareness will help light up the dark road for Pakistan’s blind.
Zubeida Mustafa is a senior writer and editor in Pakistan and contributes to several national and international publications.