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HRH The Countess of Wessex visits India to see efforts to save premature babies’ sight
© Tim Rooke / Shutterstock

HRH The Countess of Wessex visits India to see efforts to save premature babies’ sight

Today, HRH The Countess of Wessex, in her capacity as Vice-Patron of The Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust, began a tour of India to see how the Trust is working across the country to prevent babies born prematurely from losing their sight. 

India is home to the highest number of premature births in the world – some 26 per cent of all preterm babies are born in India. Since 2007, the Government of India has rapidly accelerated efforts to reduce infant mortality, setting up neonatal units all over the country to improve the outcomes of those born too soon. But as children were surviving, more and more cases of blindness were emerging.   

Retinopathy of prematurity (ROP) is the leading cause of childhood blindness worldwide. The disease exclusively affects preterm babies, as the blood vessels at the back of the eye have not had a chance to fully develop before birth. Premature babies are often given oxygen in the incubator to survive, but too much oxygen is highly toxic and can lead to total and irreversible sight loss.

Before the Trust’s programme began in 2014, there were no national services in place to detect and treat ROP in India. There was little knowledge of the condition within neonatal care or understanding of the need to screen and treat the condition within the first 30 days of life. Today, The Countess witnessed first-hand how the Trust, working under the leadership of the Government of India, has improved neonatal services across the country and through its partners is providing screening and treatment for ROP in hospitals across four districts in India, serving a population of over 47 million people. 

At the Special Care Neonatal Unit at Gandhi Medical College and Hospital, Hyderabad, The Countess saw babies that were born at just 28 weeks, weighing as little as 650 grams, being carefully monitored to prevent ROP. It was here that she met with ophthalmologists, paediatricians and nurses who have all been trained under the Trust’s programme to provide the high level of care required to prevent blindness occurring in these early and most fragile days of life.

In Hyderabad, The Countess also saw how Dr Subhadra Jalali, a world leader in ROP who has been instrumental in the delivery of the Trust’s programme, is training teams across the country and internationally. Dr Jalali, who to date has saved the sight of over 20,000 babies with ROP, met The Countess at LV Prasad Eye Institute where they talked about how the Trust’s efforts have been critical in tackling the rapidly increasing occurrences of ROP in preterm babies. 

Speaking to trainees at the hospital, The Countess said “I had the pleasure of meeting Dr Jalali a few weeks ago in London. To come here and see for myself what you are doing, is fantastic… you are creating a lasting legacy. The Trust has always wanted a legacy that will last on into the future and this is what you are doing. It is going to have a huge impact on the lives of thousands of children long into the future.”

The Trust, a time-limited charitable foundation set up in 2012 to mark The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, is working to help end avoidable forms of blindness and to empower young leaders across the Commonwealth. In January 2020, it will close having successfully completed its five-year programmes and created a lasting legacy in honour of The Queen.

The film, A life with Sight, tells the story of Dr Jalali who is working to ensure that every child born prematurely in India has the chance to see.