November 27, 2005.
THEY are stories of hope. Shafi was a bright little boy who was heading for a life of near-blindness because a congenital defect was damaging his eyesight. It took a 50p pair of glasses to transform his prospects and get him back to school among his friends. He now plans to be a doctor.
Seven-year-old Murtaza had never seen his family or his home until the cataracts he developed as a baby were removed in a simple operation. Now he can play safely with the other boys in his desert village and he no longer feels left out.
Miriam, 12, was struggling at school in silent torment because she could no longer see the blackboard and absorb the lessons that had been so enjoyable for her previously. Inexpensive low-vision aids have brought the smile back to the face of this intelligent young girl.
Shafi, Murtaza and Miriam are the lucky ones, all Pakistani children whose lives have been transformed by the extraordinary work of Sight Savers International, the British-based charity at the heart of Scotland on Sunday's Christmas Appeal.
Earlier this year, we accompanied the charity's Scottish ambassadors, actress Elaine C Smith and Carol McGregor, mother of film star Ewan, to Pakistan to witness how money raised in this country was being spent.
We found stories of children whose prospects of a happy and productive life were dramatically enhanced by simple medical procedures costing less than £30.
We met adults whose families were on the poverty-line because their breadwinner had been disabled by cataracts. A 20-minute procedure helped restore enough sight for the head of the family to be able to do his job again.
Sadly, the problem of untreated blindness in third-world countries such as Pakistan, with its 150 million population, is huge. More than 1.5 million children and adults are known to be suffering from varying degrees of blindness, even though around 80% of cases are easily treatable.
The major problem is cataracts, a disease which has reached almost epidemic proportions in Pakistan through a range of factors associated with extreme poverty.
Scarring of the cornea, glaucoma and refractive errors that just need a pair of spectacles to correct them are also significant causes of blindness.
Yet, to give just one example, a life-transforming cataract operation for a child can cost as little as £27 or just £17 for an adult. In a country where more than a third of the population is literally surviving on less than 60p a day, however, the cost of even inexpensive - by western standards - health care is a daunting obstacle.
This is where Sight Savers International can step in, providing the direct financing for local surgeons to carry out cataract operations, donating funds to low-vision clinics to help them buy spectacles or other low-vision aids and paying for the training of a network of community health workers.
When Smith and McGregor visited teeming city eye hospitals and remote, rural clinics earlier this year it was before the devastating earthquake that struck northern Pakistan, killing more than 70,000 people, leaving thousands more homeless and destitute and prompting a huge international relief effort.
But both are adamant that the work being carried out by Sight Savers is equally as important to Pakistan's future.
Smith, best known for her portrayal of Mary Doll in the Rab C Nesbitt series, said: "It's difficult at this time when people are struggling for survival in the mountains but these programmes to restore the sight of thousands are just as valuable as they always were.
"What struck me most was the incredible dedication of the doctors and other health care workers determined to tackle this huge problem and they deserve our support.
"Sight Savers is a very tangible charity in that you know when you give money it will save a child's sight. A small amount of money - about the cost of a Christmas present - really does go a long way."
Carol McGregor, who runs a company producing audio guides for the visually-impaired, recalls the warmth with which the Sight Savers delegation was received even in the poorest of villages.
"What Sight Savers is able to do is absolutely fantastic," she said. "One thing I remember quite vividly is the welcome and the gratitude people were expressing about the help that organisations like Sight Savers can bring them."
Sight Savers chief executive Caroline Harper said: "Preventing blindness or restoring sight to people can often be very simple and always highly cost-effective.
"But with 90% of all blindness occurring in the poorest parts of the world, such costs are impossible for many adults and children to bear - so they remain blind when they could easily see."
End of article.
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