One of the biggest global health crises we face today impacts more than a billion people. It’s not HIV or heart disease. Malaria or mental health. It’s vision impairment. More than 253 million people are visually impaired and there are 1.1 billion people with near-vision impairment according to a paper published by the Vision Loss Expert Group in the Lancet. But a simple pair of eyeglasses can change the lives of these people dramatically.
While access to quality vision care and eyeglasses isn’t a big challenge in developed countries, it’s a gargantuan barrier in the developing world.
Children such as 12-year-old Shivam Kumar of India, who was profiled in a New York Times article about the issue, go from mild inconveniences such as having to sit in front of the classroom to see the chalkboard to vision impairment that impacts and even endangers his life. He had to stop flying kites, playing cricket and couldn’t see motorbikes on his walk to school until they almost hit him. Turns out, a simple pair of eyeglasses would have solved his vision problems.
Unfortunately, Shivam’s story isn’t unique. There are tens of millions of children in developing communities who aren’t getting eye exams because their family can’t afford it or there aren’t vision care providers close enough to get care.
Even though money is an issue, there also isn’t the structure, proper equipment or professionals to provide care and treatment in many countries. For example, there are just 45 eye doctors in Uganda, a nation of 41 million and Liberia just recently got its first eye clinic. It’s estimated that there are 180 million children in developing countries that would benefit from vision correction. That’s why one of the missions of several of the nonprofits who work on this issue is to sponsor eye doctor visits and provide training for locals to give preliminary eye exams.
Wearing eyeglasses is often a fashion statement in the developed world or at the very least can contribute to a positive impression such as being smart or cool, but in developing countries eyeglasses can be viewed as a sign of weakness or an unfavorable attribute for young women who are of marrying age.
The best way to diagnose vision problems is for children to get regular eye exams; however, there are also common symptoms such as headaches and squinting that are tell-tale signs a child is struggling to see properly.
Vision care for children in developing countries could solve problems
Children with poor eyesight struggle in school and can be misidentified as poor learners. The more the kids struggle, the more likely they will stop attending school altogether. Lack of education is a contributing factor in the cycle of poverty. Ultimately, poor eyesight can prevent children from reaching their full potential.
Poor eyesight makes it difficult or impossible to complete tasks that are critical for employment. For example, many people in Rwanda are employed as coffee bean sorters. However, a coffee bean sorter needs good eyesight and without being able to see properly -something that a simple pair of glasses could fix- sorters lose their jobs.
Without early intervention for vision problems and the resources for proper vision care, the chances for blindness increase. In developing countries that don’t have access to resources for the blind, this can lead to a tragic outcome.
How children in developing countries get vision care
At this point, children in developing countries get vision care through nonprofit and charitable initiatives.
Less than 1 percent of resources ($37 million) devoted to global health issues was spent on delivering eyeglasses to people in the developing world in 2015. Even though the world’s vision crisis contributes to more than $200 billion annually in lost productivity according to the World Health Organization, it is still not commanding the attention and funding that diseases such as malaria and AIDs do. Luckily, there are a number of nonprofits, eyeglass companies, and other businesses, as well as world leaders including former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright working together to the raise awareness and money to support the issue.