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Nine-year high for sight-saving operations

Press release issued: 24 May 2006

The number of people whose sight was saved by a cornea transplant last year was the highest for almost a decade.

The number of people whose sight was saved by a cornea transplant last year was the highest for almost a decade.

Figures from NHS UK Transplant reveal that 2,502 people received the gift of sight from a stranger – the highest number for nine years – between 1 April 2005 and 31 March 2006.

The year also marked the centenary of the world’s first cornea transplant. The number of sight-saving transplant operations was the highest since 1996-97 when 2,553 people had their sight restored.

The operation, which takes about an hour, involves replacing the patient’s diseased or damaged corneas with healthy tissue donated by someone after their death.

Professor John Armitage, Director of Bristol Eye Bank which is run by the University of Bristol, said: “It is wonderful that so many people have received the gift of sight in this past year.

“UK Transplant has recently invested in increasing cornea donation, and eight eye retrieval centres around the country are now fully functioning to ensure a steadier supply of corneas for transplant.

“The new centres enable surgeons to perform more of these straightforward but vital operations, but there is still a shortage of corneas and we know that hundreds more patients could benefit from this life changing operation if only more people agreed to help others after their death.

“I’d like to urge everyone to consider becoming a donor and to discuss it with their families and then register their wishes on the NHS Organ Donor Register (ODR).”

More than 13.2 million people in the UK have joined the ODR, the secure database of those who want to help others after their death. Of these, 93% have pledged to donate their corneas.

UK Transplant works with several key partners in encouraging cornea donation and asking people to sign up to the ODR, including Rotary International and Specsavers Opticians.

John Massie, secretary of the Rotary Cornea & Tissue Bank Campaign that has been supporting cornea donation for the past 20 years said: “This is great news. Our latest campaign, which was launched last year to mark the centenary of both Rotary International and the first successful cornea transplant, involves Rotarians promoting the new Gift of Sight leaflet.

“Figures like this give real impetus in our quest to encourage more people to sign up to the ODR.”

Mary Perkins, founder of Specsavers, which stocks the Gift of Sight leaflets in many of its stores, said: “We are delighted to be part of the campaign which enables so many people to continue to enjoy the gift of sight when otherwise they would be blind or partially sighted.”

Anyone can join the NHS Organ Donor Register by telephoning the Organ Donor Line on 0845 60 60 400 or by visiting

Cornea Transplants

Since the early 1980s, more than 42,000 people in the UK have had their sight restored thanks to a cornea transplant. Cornea damage and blindness can affect anyone at any time. Operations have been successfully performed on babies just a few days old to a man aged 104. The operation now takes just one hour to perform and involves a disc of damaged corneal tissue being removed using a circular cutting instrument called a trephine. This is then replaced by a healthy donated cornea and the graft is stitched in place with super-fine sutures.

Corneas can be donated up to 24 hours after death. You do not have to die in hospital to donate your corneas but the retrieval service is usually provided by major hospitals. About 65% of cornea-only donors are over 60 years old and over half (52%) of all cornea transplant recipients are aged 60-89.

On 7 December, 1905, Dr Eduard Zirm, the Chief of Medicine of a hospital in Olomouc in Moravia (now part of the Czech Republic), performed the world’s first successful cornea transplant. This milestone also marked the birth of the transplant age. The method used by Dr Zirm is still the basis for cornea transplantation today.

Bristol Eye Bank is run by the University of Bristol and is based in the city’s Eye Hospital. For the past 20 years, the eye bank has worked with UK Transplant, supplying corneas for patients throughout the UK.

90% of transplants use corneas stored in the Corneal Transplant Service eye banks in Bristol and Manchester, which use special techniques to store the corneas for up to four weeks. Corneas are sent from other eye banks and hospitals throughout the UK for storage and subsequent distribution to more than 150 cornea transplant units

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