Preventable blindness is a serious issue.
There are currently over 1 billion people in the world that lack access to proper eye care. That’s an estimated 1 in 7 people. Of those 1 billion people, 285 million have a visual impairment that could potentially lead to blindness, and an astounding 39 million currently suffer from blindness.
When it comes to these impairments, individuals that suffer from them are severely impacted and struggle with a poor quality of life, and that impact spreads to their families.
The tragic truth is that 80% of individuals impacted suffer from completely preventable issues like refractive errors, cataracts, trachoma, onchocerciasis (River Blindness), and Vitamin A deficiency.
With access to proper eye care, the quality of lives of millions of people could be drastically improved. That’s why the field of optometry has one of the most influential roles in bettering the world and providing a positive impact by restoring human potential.
Currently, nine out of ten of the world’s blind live in developing countries with 60 percent residing in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. This correlates inversely to the number of visual care practitioners based on the population in developed versus developing communities. In developed countries, there is 1 eye care practitioner for every 10,000 patients. In developing countries, there is 1 eye care practitioner for every 600,000 patients. However, in underdeveloped countries, there is 1 eye care practitioner for every 1 million patients!
So, what can we as optometrists do when it comes to preventable blindness?
The first step is to gain knowledge about the growing problem and better understand programs that are working to fight this epidemic. Two key programs are the World Health Organization's (WHO) Vision 2020: The Right to Sight and the Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity (VOSH). In addition to these, there has been an uptake of private practice optometrists volunteering in needy communities who are helping fill the gaps in the public health optometry system that still needs to be better developed.
Vision 2020: The Right to Sight was initiated by WHO in 1999 with three essential elements. The first element identifies disease control strategies for conditions like trachoma, onchocerciasis, and vitamin A deficiency. With increasing awareness brought into societies that lack knowledge of these diseases, it is less likely that these diseases will be contracted and spread.
The second critical element is human resources—an eye care team— that must be put in place for providing one-on-one care to patients. These individuals can be trained by practicing optometrists that provide care via programs like WHO’s Vision 2020 or VOSH; these trainees are often individuals that are already working within healthcare in their respective communities. This helps to build the support network needed to continue the fight and provide proper eyecare to all citizens.
The third element is the infrastructure and technology that must be put into place to provide a foundation for long-term care. This includes:
- Physical clinic sites
- Optical instruments needed for correcting refractive errors like:
- Instruments required for evaluating the general health of the eye
- Specialized instruments for further testing
In summation, we need the knowledge, the people, and the tools to make the impact required to help the citizens of the world and combat preventable blindness.
These three essential elements that Vision 2020 has committed to will dramatically help communities have sustainable long-term care and not just short-term treatment plans.
Over the last 20 years alone, age-adjusted prevalence of blindness has dropped 58% which shows the real, positive progress of these programs. The end goal is to integrate eyecare into the global health system, but there is still much work to be done, especially in underdeveloped parts of the world. This challenge will only grow with time, but it is very possible and the prospect of eliminating preventable blindness is in sight.
We have a professional responsibility as future caregivers, and a global responsibility as world citizens, to make this world a better place for all. Together, we can be the catalyst that alleviates the global burden of blindness. Together, we can all make a positive difference in the world.
About the author
Manzil Quadir is a second year Doctor of Optometry candidate at the University of Houston College of Optometry. She completed her Bachelor of Science degree in Biomedical Sciences with a minor in Anthropology at Texas A&M University. Manzil’s interest in global optometry was sparked through her years of involvement with the Model United Nations where she learned about the global burden of blindness. She is passionate and driven to make a positive impact as a global citizen. She is currently a member of the American Optometric Students Association Board of Trustees. After graduation, Manzil hopes to one day own her own practice to provide the best care to all.