Whitney represents thousands of children around the world with visual impairments

Whitney after surgery to remove her cataracts which have caused her 4 years of blindness
Kirsty Smith.
Author:Kirsty Smith
Posted on: Monday, 3rd October, 2016

For the past few weeks we’ve been sharing regular live updates with our supporters about 8 year-old Whitney from Uganda on her journey from blindness to sight. This little girl had been blind for 4 years but thanks to CBM supporters she can see again after doctors removed the cataracts that had robbed her of sight.  But unfortunately her story is far from unique. 

While Whitney’s story has been hugely personal, she also represents thousands of children around the world with severe visual impairments, such as cataracts, significantly affecting their quality of life.

Every year between 250,000 and 500,000 children in low and middle income countries become blind. In a huge number of these cases this blindness could have been avoided, and in many it is still treatable.

On my recent trip to Tanzania, I met several children being treated for cataracts at our partner-hospital. And yet, at 8 years old, Whitney was much older than the children I saw. Doctors think that Whitney’s cataracts developed as a baby. Had Whitney been born in a country like the UK, she would have probably had surgery even before her cataracts had become a problem for her. But her mother was unable to afford surgery, which is not usually free in Uganda where, health-systems are not are not well developed or financed.

Whitney (8 years old) has cataracts in both of her eyes. Whitney lives with her mother Sarah (38) and her two siblings in a village North of Uganda´s capital Kampala. They rent a small house. In the past Whitney was on and off pre-school because of her poor vision. At home she plays and interacts with other children – but her participation in games is limited. Most of the chores she cannot do. The family hasn’t been able to afford treatment for Whitney so far. But the girl will now receive cataract surgery through CBM partner Mengo Eye hospital.

One major problem in countries like Tanzania and Uganda is the lack of health professionals. In the UK there is around one doctor for every 400 people, in Uganda the ratio is 1:7,000 people. Another challenge is the distribution of services – many services are in urban areas while most people live rurally. This is why CBM doesn’t just provide treatment and surgery for individuals, but we also work to strengthen health systems in the countries where we work. By training doctors or other health professionals and working in partnership with local and national governments we can make sure we have an impact well beyond the individual surgeries our partners can perform.

Thanks to CBM supporters, our partner-hospitals can offer free treatment to families like Whitney’s living in poverty, but Whitney’s mother, living in a remote village and struggling to get by day-to-day, didn’t know about this.  So for 4 years, Whitney was needlessly blind, able only to see light and dark. 

Whitney can now see again. But the delay in getting treatment has meant that she will probably have a visual impairment for the rest of her life. Thankfully, the support from CBM will not end now that she has had surgery and with the right support in place, this won’t hold her back. She will receive follow up care, low vision devices or glasses if she needs them and her teachers will be advised on how to properly support her at school.

Many of the problems that Whitney and her family experienced before her surgery were not directly related to her lack of sight – they were caused because of the way societies deal with and react to disability.  Negative attitudes about disability – which is sometimes even seen as a curse from God – meant that the family faced prejudice and Whitney was bullied and picked on at school.  Her teachers had no training in how to include children with disabilities.

With greater understanding and more training for professionals about disability, Whitney’s life could have been very different even before surgery.

That’s why CBM  works to change policies and attitudes at the local and national level so that we are able to live in an inclusive world  – where, no matter what their disability, children will have the opportunity to access education, healthcare and grow up to live full, happy and independent lives – just like Whitney.


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