A Billion People Globally Are Living With a Preventable Vision Impairment: WHO
An aging population, changing lifestyles, and limited access to eye care in low- and middle-income countries are behind the rising number.
At least 2.2 billion people, globally, are living with impaired vision caused by conditions such as short and far-sightedness, glaucoma and cataract. Of these, 1 billion cases would have been preventable, had they been addressed in time, according to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) first World Report on Vision.
An aging population, changing lifestyles and limited access to eye care, especially in low- and middle-income countries, are behind the rising number, the report stated. If steps aren’t taken now to offer timely care and access to eye care, the problem may get worse. The combination of a growing and aging population in the coming times is going to increase the total number of people with eye conditions and vision impairment as the disease’s prevalence increases with age, according to the press release.
So far, presbyopia, a condition that makes it difficult to see nearby objects, affects 1.8 billion people. Myopia, which causes difficulties seeing objects at a distance, affects 2.6 billion people, of which 312 million are under 19 years of age. Other common impairments listed in the report include cataract, or clouding of the lens, (65.2 million); age-related macular degeneration, or loss in the center of the field of vision, (10.4 million); glaucoma, or damage in the optic nerve, (6.9 million); and corneal opacities that cause scarring or clouding of the cornea, which affect 4.2 million people. Other impairments include diabetic retinopathy, which causes damage to the retina and affects 3 million people, and an eye infection called trachoma, which affects 2 million people.
Per the report, the burden of these problems not only affects the patients’ quality of life but also their region’s economy.
“A recent study among nine countries estimated that the annual cost of moderate to severe vision impairment ranged from US$0.1 billion in Honduras to as high as US$16.5 billion in the United States of America. And, annual global costs of productivity losses associated with vision impairment from uncorrected myopia and presbyopia alone were estimated to be US$244 billion and US$25.4 billion, respectively,” the report stated.
In terms of geography, three Asian regions — which make up 51% of the world’s population — account for the most vision-impaired people surveyed in the study. In total, 62% of people with vision problems are from South Asia (61.2 million), East Asia (52.9 million), and Southeast Asia (20.8 million).
As for the gender gap, the WHO report stated that although it wasn’t wide for conditions such as glaucoma, age-related macular degeneration, and diabetic retinopathy, “…the rates of cataract and trachomatous trichiasis are higher among women, particularly in low- and middle-income countries.” Very often, this is the case because women have less access to the family’s financial resources to pay for eye care or transportation; women often have less access to family financial resources to pay for eye care or transportation to reach health care services.
Researchers also noticed an urban-rural divide. The incidence of vision impairment was higher among rural populations as they face greater barriers (such as having to travel longer distances) to access eye care.
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“Approximately 50% of people in low- and middle-income countries live more than one hour away from a city (compared with 10% in high-income countries), making transport to eye care services challenging,” the report noted. “Therefore, it is not surprising that a lower cataract surgical coverage and associated higher prevalence of cataract has been reported in rural areas of many countries.”
Higher rates of childhood myopia were found in urban populations of China and Australia and attributed to lifestyle differences as compared to rural populations, which spend more time playing outdoors instead of being exposed to screens.
India’s efforts to tackle and curb vision problems were praised, especially the National Programme for Control of Blindness (NPCB), and credited with reducing the prevalence of blindness from 1.1% in 2001-02 to 0.45% between 2015-18.
Many other countries are yet to achieve this rate. “It is unacceptable that 65 million people are blind or have impaired sight when their vision could have been corrected overnight with a cataract operation, or that over 800 million struggle in everyday activities because they lack access to a pair of glasses,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s director-general, in the press release.
“Millions of people have severe vision impairment and are not able to participate in society to their fullest because they can’t access rehabilitation services. In a world built on the ability to see, eye care services, including rehabilitation, must be provided closer to communities for people to achieve their maximum potential,” added Dr. Alarcos Cieza, who heads WHO’s work to address blindness and vision impairment.
Anubhuti Matta is an associate editor with The Swaddle. When not at work, she's busy pursuing kathak, reading books on and by women in the Middle East or making dresses out of Indian prints.