Why So Many Children Around The World Could Go Blind

By: Kovin Naidoo, Director, Our Children's Vision and Courtenay Holden, Marketing and Communications Manager, Our Children's Vision

Ten years ago, an estimated 19 million children worldwide suffered from serious vision problems such as near-sightedness, or myopia, the leading cause of distance vision impairment. Since then, this epidemic has grown even worse.

Severe myopia (high myopia) is a particular problem, increasing the risk of cataracts, glaucoma, retinal detachment and myopic macular degeneration — all of which can lead to irreversible vision loss. About 90% of the world’s visually impaired live in low-income settings, though developed countries are affected as well.

Yet most eye conditions in children can be prevented, treated and corrected. When it comes to reducing poverty for a child, the single most cost-effective healthcare intervention available is to improve his or her sight.

The extent to which uncorrected poor vision hurts children – psychologically, socially, educationally and economically – is often underappreciated and, worse, overlooked. The causes of long-term visual damage, once believed strictly genetic, are also based on lifestyle, culture and behavior, according to researchers at the Brien Holden Vision Institute and elsewhere. It is reasonable to assume that more children than ever are spending increased time in front of screens, studying at computers or staring for hours at smartphones and tablets. As a result, they are also spending less time outdoors in sunlight that can impact the progress of myopia.

Difficulty in detection – because vision loss, unlike many health problems, is all but invisible – only compounds the issue. Often children have no idea they’re getting low grades at school because they find it hard to see. How would they know their sight was less clear than anyone else’s without any basis for comparison? And even if you’re the most vigilant parent, you’re in the dark unless your child says something, or clearly demonstrates difficulty seeing.

Many people don’t realise that even in ‘developed’ countries children can still have their opportunities in life limited by poor vision.  In the United States, limited access to health insurance, busy schedules, and the general belief that vision care can be delayed are among some contributing causes to why uncorrected vision impairment is unnecessarily impacting children here.

Unless strong action is taken, a recent study speculated, by 2050, half the people in the world – children and adults alike – will be myopic. Just this year, an analysis of 145 vision studies, conducted by the Brien Holden Vision Institute and published in the journal Ophthalmology, underscored this trend. Projections determine that by 2050, the number of people worldwide with myopia will leap from 1.95 billion to 4.76 billion and one in 10 people will be at risk for permanent blindness.

This alarming epidemic can be slowed down, but only if a child is reached while the eye is still developing, typically around the age of 12. In addition to preventive measures, such as lifestyle changes, the solution to these disabilities is annual eye exams for children and access to affordable spectacles and other corrective treatment. Unfortunately, in the United States alone, some 10 to 12 million school children lack access to vision screening. So, giving children access to these routine screenings would have an unprecedented positive effect.

Otherwise, consider the consequences for children whose world appears blurred. They’re often unable to play safely, so they have trouble interacting and making friends. That is only half of it, as education achievement also suffers. Studies show that about 80% of what a child learns is processed visually. In the United States, failure to treat vision problems in children has led to an increased high school drop-out rate, illiteracy, and even criminal behavior, with one study showing that three of four juveniles held in detention have uncorrected vision problems.

Indeed, children with vision loss struggle to learn in school, triggering a chain reaction. They may then have a hard time finding a job or have to make do with lower-paying jobs. And, without adequate employment, they may sink into poverty, finding difficulty in buying a home and feeding a family. In addition, if they’re fortunate enough to join the workforce, the loss of productivity amounts to $272 billion a year, more than the GDP of 60 countries combined.

An annual eye exam and a simple pair of glasses can change everything. In addition, research is showing that time spent outside protects against the development of myopia. This demands that parents are actively involved in their child’s visual health by ensuring children spend time outdoors. Already certain, crusading organisations are committed to achieving these objectives. Among the most ambitious initiatives now underway is Our Children’s Vision, a global campaign – with dozens of organisations onboard to date – whose goal by 2020 is to bring eye care to 50 million children.

In an ideal scenario, every child would have their eyes tested by a trained eye care professional. If their vision needs to be corrected, it will be done. And when they open a textbook or look at the blackboard in class, they’ll see clearly enough to read every word and register every illustration.

If we give them a chance, they will enter adolescence able to see everything they need to see, including their future.

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