Dubai charity's vision to combat blindness in UAE and beyond

More on UAE and charity: Noor Dubai was launched during Ramadan five years ago by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid with a clear purpose: to bring light, or 'noor', back into the eyes of millions of people who live in darkness.

Noor Dubai was launched in Ramadan 2008 by the Ruler of Dubai with a clear purpose: to bring light, or "noor", back into the eyes of millions of people who live in darkness and to prevent others from falling victim. Courtesy Noor Dubai
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Every five seconds an adult goes blind. Every minute a child loses their eyesight.

More than 285 million people worldwide are visually impaired. Of those, 30 million are blind and 246 million have low vision – poor eyesight that cannot be corrected by spectacles.

A Dubai-based charity is now part of a global initiative to change this.

Noor Dubai was launched during Ramadan 2008 by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, with a clear purpose – to bring light, or “noor”, back into the eyes of millions of people who live in the shadow of impaired vision and to prevent others from falling victim.

The team at Noor Dubai does this by offering prevention and treatment through mobile camps for people with eye problems to help those suffering who cannot afford treatment, or are in countries where the services are unavailable.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), more than 90 per cent of the world’s visually impaired live in developing countries, and up to 80 per cent of all visual impairment can be prevented or cured.

When Noor Dubai launched, it was given a budget of Dh10 million with a goal of serving a million patients. Instead, the charity served five million individuals with just half that amount.

This success led to the charity’s transformation in 2010 into an independent foundation, relying solely on donors and volunteers.

It is among several charities working towards the global Vision 2020 mission, a joint programme by WHO and the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness, with the aim of eliminating the main causes of avoidable blindness by that date.

Saving someone’s eyesight goes beyond just providing treatment, said Dr Manal Taryam, board member and chief executive of the Noor Dubai Foundation.

“You’re actually changing someone’s life,” she said.

Among the challenges seen in developing countries are gender discrimination in access to treatment, social stigmatisation and the impact on the family’s already limited financial stability.

“In some Asian countries they’re not very educated, so they think, especially for women, that it’s something like black magic,” Dr Taryam said. “So not only is she visually isolated, she’s socially isolated.”

The negative ripple effect on the community and the economy is also a consequence of widespread vision loss, Dr Taryam said.

When the breadwinners in families lose their eyesight and eventually their jobs it is often the children who suffer, forced to quit school to earn a living.

“Another problem we faced, for example in Mali, we went to the schools for the screening programme and found that the teachers were visually impaired because they didn’t have reading glasses,” Dr Taryam said.

“It’s a big issue because you build schools and then they cannot use them because they are not healthy enough to go to school or they are not healthy enough to teach.”

The major causes of visual impairment worldwide include uncorrected refractive errors, cataracts and glaucoma. Blindness caused by bacterial infections, such as trachoma or river blindness, is also common in developing countries.

To date, the foundation has served 6.2 million people, and carried out treatments valued at Dh80m.

Last year alone, Noor Dubai screened about 44,250 people, operated on 6,000 and provided glasses to 9,000 – work valued at Dh44m.

The foundation also holds an annual charity event called Art4Sight, where donated artwork is auctioned to support global programmes. This year’s event raised Dh1.2m.

But the gap between the donations and the value of work accomplished remains steep, Dr Taryam said. “Because we are a charity, the value of work we do is still so much higher than what we receive,” she said. “That’s why every dirham counts.”

Pro bono or significantly discounted medical work and donated equipment have helped reduce the cost of a single 20-minute cataract surgical procedure to US$8 (Dh29) per eye, and glasses to just $4.

In developing countries, the same procedure could average $150 or more, depending on the level of intraocular damage.

“The people living in those countries don’t even make that amount in months,” Dr Taryam said. “Eight dollars for a surgery and $4 for glasses … that’s how simple it is to change someone’s life from darkness to light.”

Individuals can donate through the Noor Dubai Foundation website,, or by sending cheques, making a bank deposit or a cash donation to one of the addresses also listed on the website.

People unable to donate money can volunteer time or become an advocate for sight. For more information, visit the website, email or call 800-633.