YOU would never think it was a huge problem that caused a drain on the global economy to the tune of $227 billion a year: that’s bigger than all but three of Africa’s economies.
Yet vision problems, especially myopia (shortsightedness) are a problem that 500 million Africans grapple with – most of whom without their knowledge. When was the last time you saw a bus driver in an African city wearing glasses? Probably never.
Myopia may not be considered a serious social and health problem in a continent that has many “more critical” issues, including malaria, HIV/AIDS, malnutrition.
But drivers with poor vision, correctable with glasses, have an up to 30-percentage point higher incidence of road accidents, data published by the World Economic Forum and EYEliance shows.
The report quotes studies that show that correcting pupils’ poor vision with glasses has an impact on learning that is equivalent to half a year of additional schooling, 10 times higher than from deworming, and three times higher than from nutrition programmes like school lunches.
That’s a big deal, considering that deworming and school feeding have been demonstrated to improve learning, and are now incorporated in many African countries as an integral part of the “schooling package”.
Indeed, eyeglasses as a simple intervention suffer from the “tyranny of the ordinary”, to put it inelegantly. Take river blindness, a neglected tropical disease caused by a parasitic filarial worm, spread by black flies, which disables tens of thousands of people in poor countries.
River blindness is curable in its early stages with the drug ivermectin, which needs to be taken as a single dose annually. The manufacturer of ivermectin – Merck & Co., Inc. – has provided the drug free of charge since 1987.
Currently, $0.02 is spent for every person whose vision could be corrected with glasses, or less than 1% of the spending per person affected by river blindness. Yet, poor vision resulting from eye disorders is the number-one cause of vision impairment (48%), as opposed to river blindness, which accounts for less than 1% of all vision impairment, the report by WEF states.
According to the American Optometric Association, 80% of all learning during the formative first 12 years of a child’s life happens through vision, such as looking at blackboards and reading books.
And in low-income settings where books are shared between several pupils, the blackboard becomes the teacher’s primary tool for learning. If you are short sighted, that puts you at a major disadvantage.
Short-sightedness usually develops in childhood, and occurs when the eye grows excessively long. This results in blurred distant vision.
Today, 2.5 billion people unnecessarily live with poor vision because they do not have the eyeglasses they need. Of these, 624 million need corrective lenses so strong that they are classified as visually impaired or blind without glasses.
Most are unaware of their condition, and may be unable to afford or access eye-care.
There are also prevailing misperceptions about the safety and effectiveness of glasses (that wearing glasses is what actually ruins your eyesight, or makes it worse). And there is also the fear of bullying, of course – the familiar stereotype of the bookish child tormented by mean bullies.
Uncorrected myopia can also lead to more serious problems; it increases the risk of sight-threatening diseases such as retinal detachment and myopic macular degeneration, or thinning of the central part of light-detecting layer of the eye, which can eventually result in blindness.
But it is not a problem of the unlucky few. Myopia in the global population is expected to get dramatically worse in the next few decades if current trends continue – by 2050, about half of the world’s population, or 4.8 billion people, will be short-sighted, the report states.
In Africa, myopia will increase five to sevenfold from prevalence rates estimated in 2000. By mid-century, most countries will have over 25% of the population needing corrective glasses.
It’s part of a broader trend that is shaping up in more developed countries. The canary in the coal mine is East Asia, where myopia rates are already very high, and may reach 65% in the general population by 2050.
Sixty years ago, 10–20% of the Chinese population was short-sighted. Today, by one estimate, up to 90% of teenagers and young adults are. In Seoul, a whopping 96.5% of 19-year-old men are short-sighted.
Why has shortsightedness spiked so much in the past few years? Many blame screens – your mother may have scolded you as a child for sitting too close to the television. And today’s children have it “worse” with computers, smartphones and tablets, so that must be causing the epidemic of eyeglasses, right?
Not really. Researchers now believe that is not screen time, necessarily, that is driving the march of myopia. Neither is it bookwork or reading.
The most compelling hypothesis right now is that it is lack of time spent outdoors that is the culprit. It doesn’t seem to matter what the outdoor activity is: one could be playing sports, sitting on a bench, or indeed, reading.
But it appears that the mere exposure to bright outdoor light prevents the elongation of the eyeball during development. Being outdoors could also train your eye to focus on distant objects, and so prevent your focus being “stuck” on near objects only.
Undoubtedly, we are seeing changes in the anatomy of our eyes as a direct result of modern life; there was less myopia when people lived a more rural existence and before the mass education of the latter half of the 20th century, argue ophthalmology researchers Chris Hammond and Katie Williams in this article.
WEF estimates that if addressed worldwide, vision correction could increase global GDP by $227 billion annually.