Around 2015, the medical community in Armenia began to see a major increase in corneal disease and the number of Armenians requiring transplants to regain their eyesight. Sadly, the majority of these Armenians — more than 100 on the waiting list for corneal transplants — were blind or their sight was severely impaired because they could not afford the cost of the transplant surgery — $800.
By American standards, $800 is a small sum to regain your sight, but accessibility — financially and geographically — of eye care in Armenia is extremely limited and disproportionately affects the poor and those living in remote regions. Just four towns outside of Yerevan provide secondary and advanced eye care. Most surgeries are available only in the capital. There are more than 300 ophthalmologists in Armenia, yet only one-third of them practice throughout the regions. This is just the opposite of the population distribution in Armenia where one-third of the three million people live in Yerevan and two thirds live in the outlying regions. As well, only a few ophthalmologists in Armenia are surgically trained and none perform corneal transplants. This means patients must travel to Yerevan for the procedure.
To compound the situation only 30 percent of those who require corneal transplants are eligible for government assistance when a cornea becomes available. Because these people are unable to afford the cost of the transplant or the travel expenses to Armenia’s capital city, they receive no care and remain blind or severely sight impaired.
The Armenian EyeCare Project is not permitted by the government to provide surgery for those who do not fall within the government’s poverty guidelines and as a consequence many are left blind. “We have almost everything needed to provide patients with maximum care,” said Dr. Anna Hovakimyan, who performs the cornea transplants at the Corneal Uveitis Clinic in the Malayan Ophthalmological Center in Yerevan. “We have the knowledge and all the capabilities to help these people.” Yet while the desire and ability to help these Armenians exists, patients need donors to sponsor their surgeries.
This is why, in 2016, the Armenian EyeCare Project established a Corneal Transplant Program, asking donors to sponsor transplants for those who are on the waiting list in Armenia — a cost of $800 for one procedure.
The AECP has been fortunate to partner with two tissue banks in the U.S. — SightLife and the Eye-Bank for Sight Restoration — who donate corneas on an ongoing basis, which ensures that a lack of corneas will never be the cause of blindness for those in need of a transplant in Armenia.
Since beginning our Cornea Transplant Program in 2016, nearly 100 patients in Armenia have received corneal transplants thanks to our donors, fundamentally changing their vision and their quality of life. Still, patients are added to the waiting list every month and many continue to wait for their opportunity for restored vision and a better life.
Restoring these people’s sight not only changes their lives, but also the lives of their families, friends and loved ones as they become more independent and start contributing to their communities. You can be the reason someone in Armenia receives the gift of sight and has the tools they need to lead a productive life.