Mariani Dewi, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta
Saturday morning for Tin Martini, a 65-year-old resident of a senior citizen's home in Central Jakarta, meant the start of a brighter day. She had just received a new lens, replacing her cataract-infected one, at the Cipto Mangunkusumo General Hospital, Jakarta, and it had cost her nothing.
Although her left eye was still covered with a medical patch and a plastic eye cover to protect it, she was looking forward to seeing as clearly as she used to. About 70 others had received the same gift.
An NGO, Women for the Health of Senior Citizens (Pelita Usila), found donors to sponsor the event and 10 doctors from the Indonesian Association of Ophthalmologists (Perdami) performed free surgery for poor people.
"I would never have had the surgery if I had to pay. I heard that it was so expensive that I did not even bother to go to any hospital to see how much it would cost," Tin said.
Cataract surgery at a hospital costs at least Rp 10 million (US$910) per eye, driven by expensive surgery equipment and doctor's fees.
"But the poor can come to this surgical event because we do not charge them for the equipment or the doctor's fee. They only need a letter from the local administration certifying that they are poor," said Johan Hutauruk, the head of the association's cataract removal section.
"We do need donations to pay for the costs of the new lenses and eye drops."
The association performs around 10,000 free cataract surgeries every year. The number could be higher if more donors wanted to support it. Donors give Rp 500,000 for each cataract removal for a minimum of 25 people per event to maximize the use of doctors and equipment.
Cataracts are the main cause of blindness in Indonesia. It is a degenerative disease, whereby the lens crystallizes, becoming thicker and more opaque as people age.
Health Ministry data shows that 23 percent of elderly people suffer from cataracts. Around 1.5 percent of Indonesians are blind, the highest rate among Southeast Asian countries. Most of the blind are from low-income families with little access to health care.
About 210,000 Indonesians go blind annually because of cataracts, Johan said. Around 140,000 seek help and undergo surgery while the remaining 70,000 remain blind. Cataracts can also affect young people. One of the patients that day was only 34.
The only solution is surgery. The technique now is to remove the old lens and replace it with an artificial one.