47th Foundation Day of Dr R.P. Centre for Ophthalmic Sciences

Inaugural address by Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Regional Director, WHO South-East Asia

10 March 2014, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi

It gives me great happiness to be present here with you on the occasion of the 47 Foundation Day of Dr Rajendra Prasad Centre for Ophthalmic Sciences. The illustrious history and excellent contributions of this Institute during the past 47 years are a matter of great pride and satisfaction to all of us who care for, and are concerned with the health of our people. The Institute has always lived up to its apt motto of tamaso ma jyotir gamaya by either preventing darkness through healthy eyes or through curing eye diseases for restoring vision in the eyes and light in the lives of people.

At the outset, I wish to congratulate the entire faculty and the staff of this national institute of excellence which is also a WHO collaborating centre, for the exemplary hard work, innovative approaches, and state-of-the-art patient care that represents the highest international standards in ophthalmic sciences, which is so apparent as I took a round of the Centre and observed the new services. It is indeed a centre par excellence and I congratulate you all.

WHO estimates that around 285 million people in the world are visually impaired out of which 90.5 million of them are from the South-East Asia Region. Of the estimated 39 million blind people in the world, 90% are in developing countries; 22% in India alone. Therefore, the burden of blindness is largely in developing countries where 9 out of 10 of the world’s blind live. As you are aware, cataract alone is the cause of approximately 50% of the world's blindness and the rest is caused by conditions such as glaucoma, trachoma, onchocerciasis and childhood blindness. Despite a half century of efforts to prevent blindness, the global burden of blindness is not shrinking, but growing, due to population increase coupled with an ageing world. If nothing is done and no additional resources are mobilized urgently to deal with this, it is projected that by 2020, the global burden of blindness will double from what it is today.

‘Vision 2020: the Right to Sight’ was jointly launched by WHO and the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness (IAPB) in 1999 as a global initiative. WHO organized an expert group meeting in 2007 to review progress in the countries of the Region and to further strengthen regional capacity towards the attainment of the goals of Vision 2020. Detailed country by country situation analysis was carried out in 2011 and a regional workshop to assess the implementation of the Action Plan for the Prevention of Avoidable Blindness and Visual Impairment was also held in September 2011.

Realizing that about 80% of global blindness is avoidable, and striving for a major international effort to combat avoidable blindness, WHO and a Task Force of international NGOs jointly revisited the global initiative of "VISION 2020 -- The Right to Sight". The Sixty-sixth World Health Assembly held in May 2013 adopted resolution WHA66.4 ‘Towards universal eye health: a global action plan 2014–2019.’ The vision of this global action plan is to have a world in which no one is needlessly visually impaired, where those with unavoidable vision loss can still achieve their full potential and there is universal access to comprehensive eye care services. The global action plan aims to achieve by 2019, a reduction in the prevalence of avoidable visual impairment by 25% from the baseline of 2010.

Of course, the development of a Vision 2020 agenda is one of the series of major initiatives that WHO has spearheaded since the 1950s to combat blindness starting with trachoma, followed by the Onchocerciasis Control Programme in 1974. This was then followed in 1978 by the launch the Programme for the Prevention of Blindness (PBL), aimed primarily at onchocerciasis, xerophthalmia, trachoma and cataract as preventable causes of blindness.

Some of the key WHO core mandates are to provide evidence-based policy guidance, promote research, and provide technical support to Member States to build capacity to tackle health issues efficiently and effectively. In this regard, WHO has provided and continues to provide support to Member States to formulate sound national policies, help implement such programmes, and monitor their progress and impact. WHO does this through its own technical capacity supplemented with its wide reach of the technical resources of global institutions and international experts, and uses its convening power to bring together different stakeholders to shape global, regional and national policies and strategies for the prevention of blindness.

All of these initiatives are based on principles of universal access and equity, human rights, evidence-based practices, life-course approach and empowerment of people with visual impairment. The key strategy is to reach out to communities, empower them and ensure access of essential quality services for prevention of visual impairment within national systems of primary health care to them.

You will recognize that these principles are the same which have guided the operations of the Dr Rajendra Prasad Centre for Ophthalmic Sciences during the past 47 years.

I wish to laud the commendable contributions of this Institute to the building of national capacity to tackle eye diseases through its innumerable educational and training activities which have helped expand the health workforce in this field and strengthen the capacity of health systems to respond to the needs of the population for eye care services. The research undertaken by the experts in this Institute and its affiliated centres around the country is well-known and highly appreciated by their peers and, more importantly, such research has also helped find appropriate solutions to address issues of blindness in the country.

Ever since its inception, the Dr Rajendra Prasad Centre for Ophthalmic Sciences has been recognized by national policy-makers as a centre of excellence and a dependable resource for the formulation of policies and strategies for national eye health programmes. For example, there has been a substantial input from the faculty of the Institute in the framing of the Plan of Action under the Vision 2020 Initiative in India. This Plan of Action will guide the National Programme for Control of Blindness in the years to come. Further, technical support from the Institute in the implementation and monitoring of India’s National Programme for Control of Blindness has been also truly laudable. An excellent example is the “National Registry of Eye Care Infrastructure and Human Resources in India,” a software developed by the Institute which will be of immense value to support Vision 2020 activities in India.

While the above are true and indeed necessary, it is for clinical services and the excellence in eye care that RP Centre is sought by the people. Not only professionals and policy-makers look forward to the guidance and support of RP Centre on all matters related to eye health, but people also find here the desired modern services of the highest standards either totally free or at just a fraction of the true cost of such services. Therefore, it is not without reason that there is an ever-growing number of people who flock to RP Centre seeking relief from their eye ailments. I understand this Institute caters to almost 1500 patients every day in its OPDs alone. The number of surgeries and other procedures performed every year also runs into thousands.

As a public health professional, I am delighted to know that this Institute has an impressive out-reach community programme, especially in the rural and remote areas which are usually underserved or not served at all by the general reach of the health system. Thus, it is a matter of great pride that world-class services are also accessible to the poorest of the poor of our country.

The R.P. Centre is actively collaborating with various national and international agencies like ICMR, WHO and others in various fields of clinical, applied and basic research. RP Centre continues to be an important WHO Collaborating Centre for Prevention of Blindness, and it is in this capacity that RP Centre contributes far beyond the borders of India, as the WHO South-East Asia Region caters to the needs of eleven Member States.

As a public health professional, I am delighted to know that this Institute has an impressive out-reach community programme, especially in the rural and remote areas which are usually underserved or not served at all by the general reach of the health system. Thus, it is a matter of great pride that world-class services are also accessible to the poorest of the poor of our country.

On your 47th Foundation Day, may I urge you to continue with your excellent work, expand it further to touch the lives of as many people as possible and make a difference to the lives of people all over the world by giving them the gift of light and removing darkness from their lives. On behalf of WHO, I look forward to continue our collaboration with the Institute as we strive towards a world of light and colour, a world where all avoidable blindness is prevented.

Thank you very much and, once again, please accept my heartiest Felicitations on your 47th Foundation Day.