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Eyesight: the state of vision around the world

You could be forgiven for wondering why the state of the world’s eyesight has become such a prominent global issue. After all, less than 3% of the population suffer from visual impairments and many would argue that, since even blindness isn’t directly life-threatening, there are far more pertinent problems in the world that we ought to tackle first.

So why is eyesight a global issue?

  1. The first reason is simple: although less than 3% of the world’s population are visually impaired, this is still a figure that amounts to over 200 million people – more than 3 times the entire population of the UK.
  2. It’s in our interests to try to tackle the issue globally. Around 100 people in the UK alone start to lose their sight every day, and visual impairments and blindness can drastically reduce the quality of life of those affected. It’s amazing how much we value our eyes and vision: if forced to choose, 79% of people would rather lose their sense of taste, 78% their hearing, and 67% one of their limbs, instead of their eyesight.
  3. 75% of vision problems are easily preventable or even curable, which means that improving the state of the world’s eyesight is a realistic goal. What’s more, 90% of people with visual impairments live in developing countries. Many of these countries have inadequate healthcare systems to cope with the scale of the problem, but if better care was available, numbers could be significantly lowered. In particular, the number of blind people could be drastically reduced from its current level around 40 million.

Global causes of blindnessWhat are the main causes of blindness?

Out of over 200 million visually impaired people, 40 million are registered blind. The most common cause of blindness is cataracts (39%), which is a treatable condition. The figures in the graph show global averages for various diseases, and breaking the stats down by separate regions reveals two sides to the picture:

We see the prevalence of Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD) in Westernised countries, a non-treatable condition which accounts for 50% of blindness in these regions (see table). By contrast, the rate of blindness from cataracts in developing regions like East Africa and South-East Asia is proportionally very high at 55% and 58% respectively.

Causes of blindness by regionA cataract can be successfully treated with straightforward surgery performed by an ophthalmologist, so a high rate of cataract-related blindness in developing countries points to inadequately funded healthcare systems. 

Indeed, Africa averages just one ophthalmologist for every 1.25 million people, compared with the USA which has 18,305 active ophthalmologists (one per 16,000 people), so it is unsurprising that rates of preventable blindness across the African continent are extremely high.

What’s more, in most developed nations, there is around one optician for every 8,000 people, but in the developing world this ratio is much worse: in many countries it can be as low as one optician for every million people – in Mali the figure is one optician for every 8 million people.

Did you know?

Two thirds of the world’s blind people are women. This is partly because, in poorer areas of rural Africa and South-East Asia, women and older girls tend to be the main childcare providers, and are therefore more prone to be infected by young children carrying the bacteria that cause trachoma, an infectious tropical disease which can cause blindness. 

Simple surgery can prevent this, but sometimes male authority figures are required to give their consent for a woman to undergo trachoma surgery, and are often not forthcoming in granting it.

What is the world doing to tackle these problems?

The fantastic thing about improving the state of the world’s eyesight is that it is a realistic ambition. The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Vision2020 report set out its aim to eliminate cataract-related blindness by putting in place the infrastructure to promote affordable local eye health services and cheaper cataract surgeries, to train a greater number of ophthalmologists, and to mobilise local resources to help provide these services.

Raising awareness about eyesight issues is one of the key objectives of National Eye Health Week, which takes place on 16th-22nd September 2013. During the week, eye care charities, organisations and health professionals from across the UK will join together to promote the importance of eye health and the need for regular sight tests for everyone.