Governments worldwide must take decisive action to end avoidable blindness. Recent research published in The Lancet Global Health predicts that the number of people living with blindness could triple worldwide by 2050, from 36 million to 115 million. Better funding and access to eye care services are needed to combat the situation.

The number of people who are blind will increase dramatically as people live longer and populations rise. We are more prone to various elderly diseases, such as cataracts and diabetes leading to diabetic retinopathy, which are avoidable. Sadly, the highest burden of eye disease lies in various regions in Asia and in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, which to a certain extent are also poverty-stricken areas.

Poverty prevents people accessing quality eye health care and so they have to live with blindness. Some of them live in remote areas where it is common for patients to walk half a day to arrive at the nearest health centres.
Medical staff may not have the professional knowledge to diagnose an eye disease, or patients simply cannot afford straightforward and simple surgery, which is normal in Hong Kong.

The Lancet report also found that 55 per cent of visually impaired people are women. In many communities, men control the family finances and their medical needs are prioritised. Women lack the knowledge and courage to seek help when their eyes are not right.

This is a vicious cycle. When people are blind, they have no access to education. A care-taker must look after the blind family member, which takes away a pair of hands to make ends meet. For these reasons, it is easier for the blind or family with a blind member in poorer areas to be trapped in a cycle of poverty.

The report’s figures are a wake-up call for governments and communities everywhere to do more to end avoidable blindness. It’s appalling that four out of five people who are blind don’t need to be when their sight can be saved through prevention, surgery or treatment.

The Fred Hollows Foundation estimated that for every US$1 invested in ending avoidable blindness, there was a US$4 benefit for a country’s economy. The strategies being used around the world to end avoidable blindness have been shown to work; all we need is to get them to the right scale to address the growing global need.

Brian Doolan
The Fred Hollows Foundation

*This article originally appeared in South China Morning Post on 11, Aug, 2017