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20 Million People Worldwide Are Blind Because They Can't Afford a $35 Surgery

Brian Mullaney, founder of organizations that provide free surgeries for millions of children worldwide, says we need to be solving the "little" problems first.

Brian Mullaney: I’ve been doing work providing surgeries for the poor in developing countries for the past 25 years. I've been to some of the most wretched places on Earth from Afghanistan to Haiti to Bangladesh to Uganda and I've seen so much suffering and so much misery, but I have never seen anything as powerful as watching someone who is blind open their eyes and see. Today in 2015, there are 20 million children and adults who are blind solely because they can't afford a surgery that takes as little as five minutes and costs as little as $35.

America spends $30 billion every year on AIDS, malaria. TB, polio, we spend tens of billions every year and we seem to make very little progress; it's just so frustrating. So when something comes along that's correctable why don't we solve it? There is a lot of different theories on this. One of them is from this brilliant Fulbright scholar who coined the term "the tragedy of easy problems." And the idea is that the global health folks and the big huge foundations prefer to chase the famous or exotic or sexy problems like AIDS or they want to invent a miracle vaccine. They don't want to solve diarrhea, which is an old mundane, problem, but it kills millions of children every year. They don't want to do cataract surgeries, which were projected perfected in 1949, because it's old news and you're not going to win the Nobel Prize for doing cataract surgeries or cleft surgeries. So, a lot of the energy and the money is chasing home runs and these huge problems that are very difficult to solve and will take billions and billions of dollars. And none of the attention goes to these mundane problems.

If I was in charge of all global health I would make a list of the biggest problems starting from the biggest to the smallest. And then I would have a column and it would have a check in it: existing cure solution or no existing cure solution. And then I would go down and all the ones that have cures like cataract blindness and burns and clubfoot and clefts and I'd solve them first. We could save and change a lot of lives by spending just even a little bit of money in that area.


Every year, America spends $30 billion on "big name" diseases like AIDS, TB, polio, and malaria, but makes very little progress toward curing them worldwide. For Brian Mullaney, founder of Smile Train and WonderWork, this is tragic, considering that children and adults with easily curable problems like cleft palate and some forms of blindness lack access to low-cost surgeries that could significantly improve their lives.

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