£1 on your dining bill to help wipe out blindness in Bangladesh
News & Star, 10 October 2011
Vision Bangladesh is an ambitious campaign to eliminate avoidable blindness in poverty stricken Sylhet by 2014.
And it may be thousands of miles away, but it’s not far from the minds of most of those working in Cumbria’s Indian restaurants, with 95 per cent of the staff and owners coming from the region affected.
A group of Asian restaurateurs from across the north and west of the county gathered to launch the Cumbrian branch of the appeal last week.
Co-ordinator and Carlisle city councillor Abdul Harid owns the restaurant where they met to seal their support – the Dhaka Tandoori off London Road.
He explained why this particular charity is so important to the men – because so many of them are originally from Sylhet, in the north of Bangladesh.
"We have strong links with each other,” he said.
"We get together to celebrate events and when there’s a need for fundraising, like with the floods.”
For the next month the restaurants will be asking diners to add an optional £1 to their bills.
The pot collected will then be topped-up with offerings from staff and contributions from the 30 restaurant owners.
Although Cumbria’s Bangladesh community is relatively small, the numbers do not reflect the strength of feeling, Mr Harid said.
Their commitment to the cause meant that the county was home to the second Vision Bangladesh launch in the UK.
Mr Harid left Sylhet with his parents when he was four and the family initially moved to Manchester. He has been living in Cumbria for 20 years, and was elected as a Currock councillor in 2007.
He was delighted to be a member of a party representing the Cumbrian Bangladeshi community at the Vision Bangladesh meetings in London.
He said: "It made me proud, there were people from 30 other regions there and a lot from the south didn’t know where Cumbria was.
"We were able to tell them how wonderful it is.”
Based on past experiences, Mr Harid hopes the Cumbrian restaurants will raise at least £30,000 for the appeal.
In total, the Sylhet phase of the project to eradicate avoidable blindness throughout Bangladesh will cost £3m.
There are two charities organising the campaign at the national level, BRAC and Sightsavers, and they are dedicated to alleviating poverty, disability and suffering in developing countries.
The charities believe the £3m would stop 80 per cent of blindness in the region of Sylhet, with most people losing their sight due to cataracts.
There’s a backlog of almost one million cases in Bangladesh and each year more than 150,000 children and adults are added to the list.
It’s a condition that’s easily treatable – if you have the cash and the resources.
The bill for an adult cataract operation is £20, the cost of training a community health volunteer in eye conditions is just £6 and the fee for a child’s cataract operation is £75. Glasses are also on the Vision Bangladesh wish list and £30 will buy £20 pairs.
Shaha Alom is the owner of one of the restaurants supporting the appeal, the Botchergate Tandoori in Carlisle.
He hopes that the modest amount requested, combined with the county’s charitable reputation, will ensure the Cumbrian branch of the appeal is a success.
Shaha told the News & Star: "I would say Cumbrians are the most generous people in the country, they are always willing to support a solid cause.”
Shaha, who spent the first three months of his life in Sylhet, only found out how many of its people are going blind unnecessarily when he became involved in Vision Bangladesh.
He said: "I wasn’t aware of the statistics before this.
"I obviously knew that general health levels were poor but this was really surprising, much worse than I would have expected, and we’ll do anything we can to help.
"What we take for granted here, with the NHS, isn’t available in countries like Bangladesh - where the whole medical system is privately paid for.
"The average wage of someone in Bangladesh is probably only £3 a week. If you think about it, £20 for an operation is a huge amount of money over there but we know small donations from over here can make a huge difference.”
The reason why Bangladesh has one of the worst rates of ocular morbidity in the world is simple – poverty.
Cataracts are not treated in time so what would be a minor condition in this country often leads to blindness in Bangladesh.
A lack of money and National Health Service means there is also a lack of education, awareness, free services and trained ophthalmologists.
There are 58m people living in poverty in Bangladesh and they do not have access to the most basic health care.
Those in extreme need, some 20million, are at the highest risk of going blind because they are unable to prioritise what are considered to be ‘non-urgent’ medical conditions.
By the time blindness occurs they do not have the money to pay for the operation to restore their sight.
This in turn creates even more poverty because it severely limits education for children and job opportunities for adults.
Vision Bangladesh will use a number of methods to achieve its goal:
- Training existing health workers in eye health;
- Supplying information to the general population, sometimes though community meetings;
- Increasing free screenings, treatment and transport to hospitals;
- Lobbying the Bangladesh government to develop facilities for eye care;
- Funding the training of 100 ophthalmologists and other eye care professionals.
BRAC and Sightsavers will be working with local organisations that have a proven track record of service delivery.
The organisations also need to have credibility within the communities because fear has also played a part in the number of cataracts that go untreated.
Once the programme in Sylhet is complete it will be rolled out to the rest of Bangladesh. The aim is to eliminate cataract blindness across the entire country by 2020.
Cumbria may not have as big a pool to draw on as other areas, but the county’s quick and determined response to Vision Bangladesh has delighted the national organisers.
A spokesman for BRAC said: "BRAC is really proud that our British Bangladesh restaurateurs and their loyal customers in Cumbria are supporting Vision Bangladesh. We have a wonderful regional champion in councillor Abdul Harid who has mobilised support from all over this area.
"We think that while the Bangladesh diaspora is small in Cumbria, they certainly make up for it in effort and commitment to good causes.”
For more information about the appeal visit www.brac.net/visionbangladesh