As a pediatric ophthalmologist, clinical researcher and child advocate, Luxme Hariharan has set herself a challenging goal: To prevent childhood blindness globally and help those with imperiled vision to see better. Born in Hyderabad, India, Hariharan graduated with bachelor’s degrees in biology from CALS and in Latin American, Caribbean and Iberian Studies from the College of Letters and Science. She went on to earn an M.D. at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health and a master’s in public health from Johns Hopkins.
While still in medical school she helped establish an eye-care program in Mysore, India, with the organization Combat Blindness International. It was there that she recognized the global impact she could have as an ophthalmologist. “I will never forget witnessing the wonder of a man who received free cataract surgery and exclaimed, ‘Now I can finally see what my granddaughter looks like!’” she says.
Hariharan also has worked on blindness prevention programs in Argentina, El Salvador and Niger and has collaborated on vision-saving initiatives in Armenia and the Philippines.
A recipient of a “Forward under 40” award from the Wisconsin Alumni Association, Hariharan is currently the Pediatric Cornea, Cataract and Glaucoma Fellow at the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles.
What led to your interest in pediatric ophthalmology?
I truly love the opportunity to help change the trajectory of a child’s life by helping to maximize
their vision. I remember one child in particular who was held back a grade because teachers thought he was not interested in school. It turned out that he just could not see well. Once he got the correct glasses prescription he was the most lively and participatory child in the class, and his grades drastically improved. I saw the direct impact vision can have on a child’s overall growth and development. I was also excited to learn the intricate surgeries involved to treat pediatric ophthalmic conditions in combination with clinical care.
What aspects of your work do you find the most challenging?
When we are not able to offer a permanent treatment or cure for certain disorders, and despite our best efforts, a child may eventually go blind. This is very challenging to witness in a young child. According to the World Health Organization, every five seconds a child somewhere in the world goes blind. Over a third of these children never graduate from high school, and half will grow up to become part of the permanently unemployed. The burden that childhood blindness places on society extends far beyond vision impairment alone and has significant social and economic impacts on families, communities and countries worldwide.
What can we do to help address this problem, beyond making sure every child has regular vision screening?
It’s important for everyone to have an idea of the types of avoidable and treatable causes of childhood blindness. Eighty percent of childhood blindness is preventable. A child’s visual system fully develops by the time he or she is 9 or 10 years old, and up until that time it is possible to improve vision via treatments such as glasses, patching and possible surgery to maximize visual potential. After age 10, however, whatever visual acuity a child has is not likely to change. Therefore, early detection of ophthalmic conditions in children is vital in preventing them from developing further visual impairment and blindness.
To learn more or to donate to childhood blindness prevention programs, Hariharan welcomes your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.