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Q&A: “There Is No National Boundary for Medical Care”

Malgorzata Stawecka interviews HAN DEMIN, the superintendent of Beijing Tongren Hospital and recipient of the 2012 South-South Award

UNITED NATIONS, Oct 23 2012 (IPS) - For millions of people in developing countries, having cataracts means permanently impaired vision or even blindness. While treatment can fix the problem, the cost is well beyond most sufferers’ reach.

Courtesy of Han Demin.

But thanks to a group of Chinese medics, this expensive surgery is now becoming more widely available. “Love is borderless” – this motto guides Dr. Han Demin in his humanitarian efforts to improve the lives of thousands of people around the world.

Han, the superintendent of Beijing Tongren Hospital, director of Beijing Otolaryngology and director of the World Health Organisation (WHO) Collaborating Centre for the Deaf, was honoured with a South-South Award for his outstanding commitment to humanitarian causes on Sep. 23, one day prior to the start of the 66th session of the United Nations General Assembly.

As of 2010, the WHO estimates that there are 20 million people worldwide suffering from cataracts,a clouding on the lens of the eye. Of these, five million are in China, and the number is increasing by 400,000 to 600,000 every year.

Han, along with his team of “flying doctors”, founded the Brightness Action Programme, launched in 2003 and dedicated to restoring eyesight to cataract patients across Africa and Asia. More than 50,000 people have been treated since the programme began, with some 14,000 in Africa alone.

“As a doctor with certain administrative strength, I am capable of paying in-depth attention to the society’s disadvantaged groups by organising more extensive social forces,” Han told IPS.

“I believe that greater contribution to blind and deaf patients can be made through unremitting efforts and summoning larger forces from the society by the propaganda effect of South-South Awards,” he added.

In an interview with IPS correspondent Malgorzata Stawecka, Han Demin talks about his biggest achievements in the field of humanitarian assistance as well as outstanding issues that have to be addressed in the foreseeable future.

Q: What inspired you to create the Brightness Action Programme?

A: In 1999, WHO launched ‘Vision 2020: the Right to Sight’ and stated the elimination of cataract as a priority strategy for the prevention of blindness in developing countries. In 2003, the National Blindness Prevention Steering Group of China started Brightness Action Programme, with the aim of “sending the most advanced medical technology and the best service to the most needed areas and people”.

Brightness Action Programme aims mainly at cataract patients from ethnic minority areas, remote and poverty areas as well as the plateau area. Since 2007, the programme went beyond China and entered North Korea, Mongolia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Pakistan and other countries, whereby in 2010 it extended to Africa, with Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Mozambique, successively.

A large number of poor cataract patients from those countries were examined and operated for free.

Q: How do you engage with sponsors from both the private and public sector?

A: So far, Brightness Action Programme has received extensive attention, vigorous support and funding from Hainan Airlines Group, Macao Mingde Foundation, Central Committee of China Association for Promoting Democracy, China Anhui Foreign Economic Construction Company, CITIC Group Corporation and other institutions and social organisations.

As a standard, comprehensive, low cost, highly efficient and sustainable development mode of blindness prevention, the programme has attracted more and more donors. The individual and group sponsors can propose funding intention through the National Blindness Prevention Steering Group. We provide sponsors with medical technology and consultation on where to go and what to do. I hope that in the near future more international forces will pay attention to Brightness Action Programme and other humanitarian assistance programmes.

Q: So far, BAP has addressed countries such as Asia and Africa. Are you going to expand the programme to other countries where the cataract rate is extremely high?

A: There is no national boundary for medical care, neither for charity. I hope all the cataract patients can get more social attention by the propaganda effect of South-South Awards and that we can help more people suffering from visual impairment and hearing handicap, including patients from Central and South America, to regain their sight and hearing.

Q: What are the main successes of the Brightness Action Programme? What challenges remain?

A: Since 2003, we have sent more than 300 experts and medical staffs from famous hospitals all over China. Our team has brought brightness back to more than 50,000 cataract patients. The oldest patient we operated was 96 years old, while the youngest only five months old. We offered free consultations for more than 10 million patients with eye diseases.

Not only free examination and treatment was offered, we have trained more than 500 local medical staffs by means of the academic communication and surgery demonstration, in order to facilitate the sustainable development of local blindness prevention and treatment. As the number of cataract patients keeps increasing in less developed countries and regions in Asia, and Africa as well, it is very important to strengthen the epidemiological investigation, to diagnose and treat the disease on time. However, we also lack grassroots medical staffs to control the disease.

Q: You’re leading also other charitable programmes, such as ‘Hearing Restoration Action’ and ‘Cochlear Implementation Charity Action’. Could you please elaborate on it further?

A: According to several statistics, there are up to 20 million people with hearing disabilities in China. In order to help these patients to return to a world of sound, especially patients from poor families, our team have joined many famous domestic and foreign enterprises and charity organisations to set up programmes that take care of hearing-impaired children. Up to now, 320 patients received free cochlear implants.

Upon our promotion, the Chinese government initiated a hearing reconstruction programme, Qi Cong Action, back in 2005 that provides annually 3,000 sets of cochlear implants to poor children with hearing disabilities for free, worth about 100 million dollars.

In 2010, the Beijing government issued a policy of providing every newborn deaf child with a free cochlear implant.

 
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  • Gail Reed

    All efforts are praiseworthy–especially for the 90% of the 121 million people in the world who suffer blindness or vision loss, two-thirds of these conditions reversible. One such vision restoration program is led by Cuba, which by 2008 had treated over 1 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean, too poor to afford cataract surgery or other therapies. Most were treated in their home countries, with new centers set up for care. For more, see MEDICC Review report at http://www.medicc.org/mediccreview/index.php?issue=4&id=37&a=vahtml It would do well if all such efforts could collaborate–Fred Hollows Foundation, the Chinese Brightness Action, etc.! They could learn much from each other, surely, and be more effective.

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