Simple surgery changes how world’s rural poor see the world

December 31, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now, to India, where medical advancements are changing the way some rural poor see the world.

John Irvine of Independent Television News has our report.

JOHN IRVINE: After years of darkness, they have just seen the light, and are thanking the American doctor who brought them the gift of sight.

The sunglasses are to ease the transition out of blindness. She is saying that, suddenly, she can see properly and she is so happy.

He is a doctor changing lives overnight. Geoff Tabin founded a charity, the Himalayan Cataract Project, that sends flying clinics into remote parts of Asia and Africa to carry out a simple, but transformational eye operation.

The curse of cataracts is a blight on millions of the world’s poorest, and nowhere more so than in rural India, places like here in Uttar Pradesh. For people not used to any kind of medical attention, the countdown to surgery is nerve-racking. They are on a production line that recreates eyesight in the five minutes it takes Geoff to remove the cataract and implant a new lens.

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She is totally — she is blind, Geoff? Is she?

GEOFF TABIN, Himalayan Cataract Project: Yes. She wouldn’t see the motion of an — see an inch in front of her face.

JOHN IRVINE: A series of breakthroughs over the years has made this procedure possible. The lens itself is an unlikely product of the second World War.

A British ophthalmologist made an important discovery while treating RAF Spitfire pilots who had pieces of glass lodged in their eyes after their cockpit canopies were shattered. He discovered that the fragments were accepted by the eyes, in the sense that there was no infection, even over time. So he deduced the material was perfect for artificial lenses. In short, these people are seeing again by looking through Spitfire glass.

In the space of three days, Geoff and two other surgeons enabled more than 1,000 people to see again. Reflected in the lens of our camera, these people saw something they haven’t seen for years: themselves. All told, the cost of their sight restoration was about 15 pounds a head. The result is priceless.

HARI SREENIVASAN: For the record, 15 pounds is roughly 25 U.S. dollars.