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 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 in lifestyle, culture and behavior, according to researchers at the Brien Holden Vision Institute and elsewhere. Today, more children than ever are spending increased time in front of screens, studying at computers or staring for hours at smartphones and tablets. They’re also spending less time outdoors, where sunlight can slow 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. Many people don’t realize that even in ‘developed’ countries children can still have their opportunities in life limited by poor vision.
Unless strong action is taken, 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 and reversed, 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.
Among the most ambitious initiatives now underway to arrest this situation, is ‘Our Children’s Vision’, a global campaign – with 34 organizations onboard to date – whose goal by 2020 is to bring eye care to 50 million children.
In the ideal scenario, every child will have their eyes tested by a trained eye care professional. If their vision needs to be corrected, it will be done. If we give them a chance, they will enter adolescence able to see anything they need to see, including their future.
Professor Kovin Naidoo is CEO of the Brien Holden Vision Institute, Our Children’s Vision Campaign Director and a Vision Impact Institute advisory board member.
He will be at the 10GA in Durban and will be part of two courses –