Cataracts main cause of blindness in SA children

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Cataracts are not only a problem for the elderly – it is the leading cause of avoidable blindness in children.

Early intervention is crucial to the successful treatment of cataracts and other blinding conditions. Of the estimated 100 000* children in South Africa who are blind or severely visually impaired, about half would still be able to see, had they received appropriate treatment in good time.

For no obvious reason little Jazmine Mnqayi from Durban was born with cataracts in both her eyes. They were barely noticeable in the young baby and Jazmine faced the possibility of being blind for the whole of her life.

Fortunately for Jazmine her mother Nombulelo noticed something wrong when she was just a few week’s old. “At first I thought it was light reflecting from the window, but when it didn’t go away I asked the doctor.”

They were referred to ophthalmologist Dr Dharmesh Parbhoo; he diagnosed bi-lateral cataract and recommended surgery as soon as possible at the ORBIS Paediatric Eye Care Centre in Inkosi Albert Luthuli Central Hospital, Durban.

“I was scared at the thought of Jazmine having to have surgery when she was so tiny.  I was also a little bit angry,” said Nombulelo.

“No one in my family has ever had cataracts, not even my grandmothers. And I did all the right things during my pregnancy; I didn’t drink or smoke, I ate right and took supplements. I couldn’t understand why this had happened to Jazmine.”

Jazmine had her first sight-saving cataract operation at six weeks and today, at four years old, is a bright, alert young child who can see perfectly when wearing her spectacles. “She’s doing very well and is really clever,” says her proud mother.

What is a cataract?

A cataract is a clouding of the lens which blocks light from reaching the retina.

“Cataracts that become evident from birth are usually hereditary or developmental, the result of a problem with lens formation in the womb,” says Dr Parbhoo.

“Children can also develop traumatic cataracts later in life due to an injury to the eye or head, a cause that is all too common in South Africa.”

Highest incidence of childhood blindness

According to a new report Child Eye Health in Africa – The Status and the Way Forward, co-written by not-for-profit organisation ORBIS and the African Child Policy Forum (ACPF), sub-Saharan Africa has the highest incidence of childhood blindness in the world.

ORBIS’ mission is to ensure that no child should be condemned to a life of blindness due to cataracts and other treatable conditions.

Reshma Dabideen, senior programme advisor for ORBIS Africa says “early detection and intervention is critical, ideally before age six.”

In KwaZulu-Natal, ORBIS has been piloting eye health interventions at a primary, secondary and tertiary level, in partnership with the Department of Health.

This includes over 550* sight-saving surgeries at the ORBIS Paediatric Eye Care Centre at IALCH and vision training for over 200 primary health care nurses.

“Don’t ignore any signs,” warns Dr Parbhoo. “If eye problems are left too late the visual pathways between the brain and eye may never develop correctly.”

How to identify a potential cataract

  • Whiteness or opaqueness in the eye
  • A white spot on the pupil
  • Any signs that your child cannot see well

Should you notice any of these signs, insist on an eye test at your local clinic or optometrist.

ORBIS has worked to prevent blindness around the world for over 30 years and in South Africa since 2011.

For expert information or to support ORBIS in the fight to save sight visit / / 021 447 7135 /

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