Launched under the state-run National Rural Health Mission, the novel community paediatric eye programme will focus on retinopathy of pre-maturity (RoP), eye care, vision, eye cancer and rehabilitation (Forever) that will complement the central government-sponsored RBSK -- Rashtriya Bal Swasthya Karyakram (national child welfare programme).
"The pilot programme is aimed at universal screening of all babies born till one year, using a low-cost method of the government's healthcare delivery system," Nethralaya chairman Bhujang Shetty told reporters here Saturday.
Under the NRHM, the health and family welfare ministry has designed the programme to provide screening to over 270 million babies born every year across the country for defects at birth, diseases, deficiencies and developmental delay leading to disability.
"When Karnataka was selected to implement the project on a pilot basis, we proposed our Forever programme, which was under implementation in the state in collaboration with the state government," Shetty recalled.
Hailing the initiative of the eye hospital, state Health and Family Welfare Secretary Keshav Desiraju hoped the trend-setting public-private partnership in healthcare would inspire other hospitals to implement the project in their respective states across the country.
"As a catalyst, Narayana Nethralaya should guide healthcare organisations in other regions to extend its Forever project with our RBSK programme for the benefit of millions of new born babies in the country," Desiraju said on the occasion.
Pioneered under the expanded Karnataka Internet Assisted Diagnosis of RoP initiative (Kidrop), the Forever programme will use the Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) worker to examine babies at critical time points using a low-cost method based on a module of training provided by Nethralaya.
"Forever cards are given to each mother. If a child weighs less than 2kg at birth, it is referred for RoP screening and if it is more than 2kg, then it is followed for universal screening. The tear off portion of the card is retained by ASHA worker and details are sent by SMS to the project team," said programme director Anand Vinekar.
Babies detected to be "abnormal" are first referred to the local body level and later to the district hospital depending on their diagnosis. The validation of positive cases will be undertaken by Nethralaya's team of experts.
"A special team from our eye hospital will train about 3,200 ASHA workers to examine babies. The project will commence in the first quarter (April-June) of fiscal 2013-14. The project will provide pilot data to serve for an all-India expansion through RBSK programme," Vinekar added.
The twin programmes (Forever and Kidrop) will be extended across the country to tackle infant blindness at the early stage through timely medical intervention.
Kidrop is the country's first and largest rurally-based telemedicine network in the world to tackle infant blindness resulting from RoP.
The United Nations 'Born too soon' report (2012) names India as the country with the leading number of premature births at 3.5 million per year.
"Around 35-50 percent of babies born weighing less than 2kg are prone to RoP and need to be screened. About 10-15 percent of them require treatment at the appropriate time to prevent irreversible bilateral blindness," Shetty noted.
Since 2009, Kidrop has covered 75 percent of the state (Karnataka) in multiple zones.
Till date, about 31,000 imaging sessions for 8,000 babies have been completed and 844 babies have undergone laser treatment to prevent blindness.