I have long believed that vision is the golden thread that runs through the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Poor vision is the world’s largest unaddressed disability, affecting 2.2 billion people globally; in my view, without global access to vision correction, at least 8 or 9 of the UN’s 17 goals are in jeopardy.
This includes gender equality, since women are more likely to suffer from poor vision than men, which in turn affects their working lives and social mobility, in addition to the goal to end poverty, since poor vision can play a key role in preventing social mobility for low-income households. Access to vision correction also has an important role to play in quality education, and in helping those in middle- or low-income countries to access the education they need to thrive.
ENGINE research projects
That’s why the ENGINE research projects announced last week are so vital to creating an impact. The four projects, STABLE (Slashing Two-wheeled Accidents by Leveraging Eyecare), ZEAL (Zimbabwe Eyecare and Learning), CLEVER (Cognitive Level Enhancement through Vision Exams and Refraction) and THRIFT (Transforming Households with Refraction and Innovative Financial Technology), all tackling the impact of poor vision on different issues across the world, are an important step to broadening our understanding of the impact of poor vision on a variety of challenges we face today. Only through conducting this kind of research can we examine these links in detail, and make a strong case for putting vision correction at the centre of our efforts to achieve the SDGs by 2030.
The STABLE project will look at the impact of poor vision on road traffic injuries, the leading cause of death between ages 5-29. This burden falls disproportionately on poor countries; while only 60% of the world’s motor vehicles are in low- and middle-income countries, 93% of road traffic deaths occur there. Uncorrected vision problems are common among drivers in these countries, yet there is very little data on younger drivers in particular, who are at the greatest risk of crashes.
Southeast Asia is the least safe region in the world for motorcyclists, with Vietnam having the region’s highest rates of fatalities. University students in the country are common users of motorbikes, while also having high rates of uncorrected myopia. Studying the correlation between uncorrected vision in young people and accidents, and making the case for access to vision correction for safer roads has the potential to make a strong impact on Vietnam, and on Southeast Asia more broadly.
The ZEAL project looks at another area where poor vision can severely impact young people: education. In a similar way to STABLE, the project will examine a historically poorly understood correlation, between uncorrected long-sightedness and educational outcomes. Taking place in Zimbabwe, and working with local partners who currently implement the Zimbabwe government’s national school vision project, this project has the potential to clearly examine the link between the two, and help thousands of children across the country gain access to the vision correction they need to thrive.
While not traditionally associated with the field of vision, growing evidence links vision impairment with the risk of cognitive decline, with studies in the US reporting a 55% increased 9-year risk of new cognitive impairment among visually impaired people. The majority of people living with dementia globally live in low- and middle-income countries, where a 223% increase in the burden of dementia is expected from 2015 to 2050.
The CLEVER project will take place in India, where total expenses for dementia care alone will soon consume 0.5% of GDP. As with the STABLE and ZEAL projects, this trial aims to determine and analyse the link between a decline in vision and dementia, which could have dramatic results in improving quality of life for millions of people in low- and middle-income countries across the world.
Finally, the THRIFT project will capitalise on the Bangladesh government’s novel and forward-looking plan to digitise all social safety net payments to the elderly, by providing free glasses and training to help elderly people cope better with unfamiliar smartphones, supporting and improving financial independence. According to recent focus groups among Old Age Allowance recipients, while 71.4% had vision problems, only 12.5% owned glasses. The THRIFT study will aim to expose any correlation between the ability to use mobile banking apps and vision correction and basic training, a correlation which could go on to strongly positively impact financial independence and quality of life across Bangladesh and beyond.
Access to vision correction undoubtedly has an impact on many of the challenges we face globally today, from road safety to dementia, and intersects many of the Sustainable Development Goals. These projects, and the Wellcome Trust’s endorsement of them, mark an exciting and significant moment for the vision sector and beyond, and undoubtedly support our goal to put vision firmly on the global agenda.