Sri Lanka has donated more than 60,000 human eyes yet desperately lacks medicine

Bruno Cooke June 14, 2022
Sri Lanka has donated more than 60,000 human eyes yet desperately lacks medicine

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Sri Lanka donates human corneas (eyes) at an incredible rate, many of which are received by residents of Pakistan.

But the country is also suffering under the weight of an economic crisis that, per The Guardian’s reporting, is quickly developing into a medical crisis.

Eye donation in Sri Lanka has a curious history, and it started in 1958.

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Sri Lanka, Southern Province, South Coast beach, Galle town, Dutch fort, UNESCO World Heritage site, aerial view

Deshabandu Dr Hudson Silva starts collecting corneas in 1958

Deshabandu is the third highest national honour awarded in Sri Lanka, and Dr Hudson Silva earned it for his work in eye and tissue transplantation.

In 1958, he launched the first campaign to collect corneas in Sri Lanka. He was a medical student at the time and received his first set a year later. He reportedly stored them in his home refrigerator

Silva co-founded the Sri Lanka Eye Donation Society with his wife Irangani in 1961. It has since provided more than 60,000 corneas for transplantation to people in 57 countries, and currently sends around 2,000 abroad every year.

Pakistan, Egypt and Japan are the most prominent recipient countries of Sri Lanka’s eyes

“The desire to help”, writes Fox, “transcends social and economic barriers.”

“People ask me,” the outlet quotes Dr Sisira Liyanage, director of Sri Lanka’s National Eye Hospital, as saying, ‘Can we donate our eyes while we are living? Because we have two eyes, can we donate one?'”

“They are giving just because of the willingness to help others. They are not accepting anything.”

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Sri Lanka, North Central Province, Anuradhapura, historic capital of Sri Lanka, UNESCO World Heritage Site, Thuparama dagoba

Why does Sri Lanka donate so many eyes?

It’s understood that the Buddhist concept of Dāna, or giving, is partly responsible for the country’s generosity in this area. More than two-thirds of the country’s population identify as Buddhist, although Hindus and Christians have also donated eyes via the Sri Lanka Eye Donation Society.

To date, Sri Lanka has donated more than 35,000 eyes to Pakistan, prompting a leading Pakistani ophthalmologist to lament: “but we lost sight”. 

Egypt and Japan have received 8,000 and 6,000 corneas, respectively.

Part of the reason Pakistan relies so much on imported corneas is that traditional Islamic law requires dead bodies to be buried whole and intact. Members of Pakistani society therefore cannot donate their own eyes for medical use after their death.

But Sri Lanka imports more than 80% of its medical supplies

The country is currently experiencing its worst financial crisis since independence, reports The Guardian. In May this year, it defaulted on its debts for the first time in its history.

Because it imports such a large majority of its medical supplies – 80% – its economic weakness is leading to a medical crisis.

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Bloomberg adds that some Sri Lankan hospitals are relying on expats to fly medicine into the country.

UK-based health charity Medical Aid To Sri Lanka published an open letter on 10 April 2022 describing the situation as “extremely serious”. It requests donations of specific medical items as well as funds.

“Almost 200 medical items are in shortage,” The Guardian reports, “including 76 essential, life-saving drugs, from blood-thinners for heart attack and stroke patients to antibiotics, rabies vaccines and cancer chemotherapy drugs.”

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Bruno Cooke has been a freelance journalist since 2019, primarily with GRV Media. He was an early contributor to The Focus, and has written for HITC, Groundviews and the Sheffield University newspaper – he earned his MA in Global Journalism there in 2021. He’s the Spoken Word Poetry Editor for The Friday Poem, and self-published his debut novel Reveries in 2019, which his mum called both a “fine read” and “excellent Christmas present”. Bruno has lived in China, Sri Lanka and the Philippines and likes, among other things: bicycle touring, black and white Japanese films, pub quizzes, fermentation and baklava. In 2023, Bruno will set off with his partner on a round-the-world cycle.