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Blindness takes a heavy toll in India, where the rate of childhood blindness is three times that of Western nations. Half of India's blind children die before the age of 5, and nearly all those who survive childhood are uneducated and unemployed.
Most cases of blindness in India are caused by vitamin A deficiency, cataracts, retinal or optical dystrophies, or microphthalmos (poorly developed eyes). About half of these cases are treatable or preventable, but many blind children never receive medical care.
New Delhi and other cities have good eye-care facilities, but "the bulk of the problem lies out in the villages, which are largely cut off from modern medical care," says Pawan Sinha, who founded Project Prakash to help find and treat blind children, in 2004. He notes that Indian village "medicine men" sometimes offer treatments that only make the problem worse — putting sugar crystals in the eye to treat minor infections, for instance.
"There's a humanitarian need to tackle this problem, and in addressing this humanitarian need we also have the opportunity, as neuroscientists, to understand how the brain learns to make sense of its visual environment," says Sinha, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT.
So far, Project Prakash has screened more than 1,000 people, at hostels and schools for the blind as well as in remote villages, and has treated more than 200. The project coordinates its efforts through existing hospitals in India, but is hoping to expand soon and build its own hospital, school and research facilities.
Project Prakash is now raising $15 million for the new 50-bed clinic and a 500-student school, to be built in Rishikesh, about 140 miles from New Delhi in the foothills of the Himalayas. The new complex will allow Project Prakash to oversee all of the patients' medical care, ensure that sight-restored children receive education appropriate to their unique condition, and undertake basic research to develop better treatments and rehabilitation programs. Although its initial focus is on blindness, the Prakash Center will eventually address other major childhood disabilities as well.
Sinha has found that even after children have their sight restored, they often face difficult challenges in obtaining an education and joining mainstream society. One recent patient decided that he wanted to go back to a school for blind children because other schools were unwilling to adapt to the needs of a newly sighted child.
"That's the kind of thing we want to prevent. We want to get them on firm footing as soon as possible after treatment," says Sinha.