By Shahla Khan
A Muslim Epidemic
“Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and be modest. That is purer for them. Lo! Allah is Aware of what they do. And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest.” (24: 30-31)
It might surprise you that this infamous line from Surah An-Nur is more than just a guide for gender relations. It is also the solution for preventing a common eye disease that plagues the Muslim world.
Cataracts are one of the the leading causes of blindness worldwide. According to Dr. Ihsan Badr, Deputy Medical Director of King Khalid Eye Specialist Hospital in Riyadh, cataracts cause 47.8 of global blindness. Approximately 16 million people are bilaterally blind from cataracts of which 95% are age-related. Cataracts are especially prevalent in the Middle East and in other developing Muslim countries. Blindness poses a major challenge to these countries due to lack of resources and professional treatment. As one of the largest developing countries, India has a large number of blind who require sight-restoring cataract surgery. The economic burden of blindness in India for the year 1997 was Rs. 159 billion (US$ 4.4 billion) and 80% of the cases were due to cataracts. Blindness in the Middle East and the Mediterranean region varies from 6.4% to 0.2% with cataracts ranking highly as an underlying cause. 14% of childhood blindness is due to cataracts as well.
What is a Cataract?
A cataract is a clouding of the lens in the eye that affects normal vision. The lens is a biconvex structure in the eye that helps focus light onto the retina. In a normal eye, light passes through the transparent lens to the retina. Once it reaches the retina, light is changed into nerve signals that are sent to the brain. The lens must be clear for the retina to receive a sharp image. If the lens is cloudy, the image you see will be blurred. Other side effects include seeing faded colors, glare from headlights, double vision or multiple images in one eye.
Detection and Treatment
A cataract is detected through a comprehensive eye exam that includes a Visual Acuity Test which measures how well you see at various distances and a Dilated Eye Exam which examines your retina and optic nerve for signs of damage and other eye problems. The symptoms of early cataract may be improved with new eyeglasses or brighter lighting. If these measures do not help, surgery is the only effective treatment which involves removing the cloudy lens and replacing it with an artificial lens.
Surgery is often a costly and unattainable source of treatment in many developing Muslim nations. According to World Health Organization, there is a need to develop national policies to deliver suitable management plans to reduce cataracts in these areas. Some organizations have taken initiative in responding to this silent epidemic. Islamic relief’s three-year pilot project, “Prevention of Blindness,” was launched in 1998 to address the problem of cataracts. In Pakistan alone, it has successfully completed nearly 2,483 cataract operations using Intra Ocular Lenses (IOL). Other organizations, such as Unite for Sight, train volunteers to work in their local communities and abroad to provide eye health programs for those without previous access. UFS has provided eye care services to more than 600,000 people worldwide.
85% of the information we receive from our surroundings comes from our eyes and what we see. Thus any sort of blur caused from a cataract can be very debilitating and can profoundly disrupt normal function in daily life. Cataracts are normally the result of old age. However other risk factors such as disease (diabetes), behavior (smoking), and prolonged exposure to ultraviolet sunlight can also initiate its occurrence. According to Dr. Bill Lloyd professor of ophthalmology at the University of California, Davis Medical Center, “most cataracts can be prevented just by decreasing the amount of sun exposure to one’s eyes.”
The simplest and most effective way to protect against cataracts is to avoid (UV) radiation caused by the Sun. UV light is a part of the electromagnetic radiation received by the Earth from the Sun in the form of waves. The Sun emits ultraviolet radiation in UVA (long waves-400-315 nm), UVB (medium waves-315-280nm), and UVC (short waves-280-100 nm) bands, but because of the absorption by our atmosphere’s ozone layer, almost all of this radiation is in the form of UVA.
A hat and cover-up should be worn outside, particularly when the sun is most intense (10 AM to 3 PM). A wide-brimmed hat can reduce up to 50% of UVB exposure. Protective sunglasses are also effective and typically block up to 60% of UVA radiation. In addition, specific types of sunglasses also offer UVB protection. For example, cosmetic purpose sunglasses block 70% UVB, general purpose sunglasses 95% UVB, and special purpose sunglasses block almost 99% UVB. At the very least, people should purchase general purpose sunglasses and they should be labeled “Meets ANSI Z80.3 General Purpose UV Requirements.”
UV light has been found to have both beneficial and detrimental effects on health, however researchers suggest to avoid extensive periods of exposure especially to one’s eyes. A study done in 2004 at St. Erik’s Eye Hospital in Sweden showed that in-vivo mice that were exposed to 300nm of UVB rays for 15 minutes developed subcapsular cataracts (Meyer & Wegener, Experimental Eye Research). Thus, in any case-especially if glasses are unavailable-doctors recommend facing away from direct sunlight for prolonged periods of time, for example when driving, which can block anywhere between 10-50% of UVB rays.
So remember, when in doubt, just lower your gaze…it’s just what Allah prescribed.