S OME 60 percent of Cambodian blind children under 15 die within two years of losing their sight, according to a new report funded by the World Health Organization.
The children are not dying from losing their sight but from being neglected by their parents and from a lack of medical facilities, says Father John Bart of the Catholic NGO Maryknoll which is trying to combat the tragedy.
Most of these children, like some 80 percent of all blind people in Cambodia are suffering from a curable ailment such as a cataract or glaucoma, an excess of eye fluid.
Father Bart said about the deaths of the small children: "These figures really struck me. We didn't expect such a large amount.
"Our field workers have found 150 blind children in Phnom Penh since June 1993. We felt we had to do something otherwise 90 of them would be dead within two years."
He said that blindness is often attributed to mental illness by uneducated people, who then tend to give preference to their healthy offspring. The blind children are regarded as a burden and their disablity makes them more prone to disease or accidents.
The Maryknoll workers are taking these children and their families to hospital to assess if the children can be cured. If not they are educating the families on how to take care of the blind youngsters. Maryknoll is also working to help blind adults.
Their figures were incorporated in the WHO report, compiled by Japanese ophthalmologist Dr K. Konyama, which estimates that there are 90,000 Cambodians suffering from some form of blindness, or nearly one percent of the population. Of 8,000 new cases of cataracts, the swamped health care service was only able to operate on 600 patients.
The report highlights the almost complete lack of trained ophthalmologists in Cambodia. There are only 16 in the whole country and only four of them work in the provinces. Two foreign volunteers, with Help the Aged and the Swiss Red Cross have just come to the end of one-year contracts.
Dr Konyama drew up the report after attending a seminar on Oct 22 organized by NGOs and WHO to draw up a national blindness prevention plan.
Two of only three Cambodian ophthamologists trained overseas, Drs Uch Yutho and Do Seiha, attended the conference as government delegates. They are now working on a plan to submit to the Ministry of Health for a drive to prevent blindness. However Dr Narong Rith, Health Under Secretary of State, who was to have been guest of honor did not appear. NGO workers were told he was too busy to attend.
Despite this the NGOs believe that the seminar was an important first step to stirring government action to assist the blind.
Blindness is presently low on the government's list of priorities, say Western volunteer health workers, pointing out that the Ministries of Education and Health have no programs to aid the incurably blind. But one health worker added: "How can we blame them [the government] if you consider malnutrition, mines, or infant mortality. There are far too many problems and no funding."
Most of the work with Cambodia's blind is being carried out by NGOs, who are coordinating their action. For example, Hellen Keller International is working on improving nutrition as many cases of curable blindness stem from lack of Vitamin A.
Meanwhile Maryknoll is working with the incurably blind.
Still Father John Bart is confident: " I think we are implementing the basis of a blindness prevention and rehabilitation system which we will be able to hand over the Ministries when they have their proper infrastructure."
Kung Munichan, administative officer for Maryknoll, added: "Perhaps the Ministry of health will even have a budget for blindness in 1995."