Preventing avoidable sight loss: the bigger picture

80% of global blindness is avoidable. The IAPB defines avoidable blindness as that which could be treated or prevented by cost-effective means, showing the importance of robust healthcare messaging and programs.

Cataracts are the main cause of blindness, alongside other conditions like age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and glaucoma. In this post, we’ll look at the bigger picture, in terms of global blindness, and ways that eye health professionals can reduce the number of people suffering from avoidable blindness.

Avoidable blindness: the numbers

In a report by the WHO it is estimated that there are 180 million people worldwide who are ‘visually disabled,’ with up to 45 million blind – so unable to walk unaided. This is a particular problem in developing nations, like sub-Saharan Africa, China and India, where 9 out of 10 of the world’s blind live. Vision loss impacts not just the visually impaired person, but their families too, and the care needed is felt particularly strongly by these nations.

The last 50 years have seen efforts made to improve healthcare, particularly in treating cataracts (the leading cause of avoidable blindness worldwide), but a growing population is increasing the global burden of blindness.

WHO reports that unless additional resources are ‘urgently’ made, global blindness will double by 2020, with people in developing countries suffering the most.

Looking to the west, around half of all blindness in America can be prevented, and around 46% of cases in the UK are avoidable, too. As well as the social impact on patients and their families, these contribute to massive healthcare costs for these countries. It is conservatively estimated at $51.4bn annually in the USA.

Taking action on preventable sight loss

Vision loss impacts a person’s quality of life, socio-economic status and mental health as well as their physical health. Blindness robs a person of their independence –  they require extra care which can also impact their family’s independence too. It is a huge burden that can be prevented with the right healthcare programmes. With a proactive approach, the lives of millions of people from all walks of life can be transformed.

The problem of preventable sight loss is so pressing that WHO has launched a campaign, Vision 2020 – The Right to Sight, which seeks to create a common agenda to prompt global action.  Vision 2020 brings together NGOs and private organisations who share one object – preventing avoidable blindness as a public health problem by 2020. They plan to do the following to achieve their target:

  1. Improve disease prevention and control
  2. Train personnel
  3. Strengthen existing eye care infrastructure
  4. Mobilise resources
  5. Use appropriate and affordable technology

What can you do as an eye health professional?

Emphasise the importance of eye health. Communicate with your patients and people in your local community about the importance of good eye health – promoting regular screening tests is a good place to start. Patients with existing conditions should be told about the importance of regular monitoring and also adherence to any medication they are taking. Regular screening can detect eye conditions in their earliest stages, and allow those with existing conditions to protect the level of vision they currently have.

Take part in awareness campaigns. There are many campaigns throughout the year that raise awareness of good eye health as well as particular conditions, for example, National Eye Health Week and Macular Week in the UK. World Sight Day is one of the biggest awareness campaigns in the eye health profession. Campaigns like this allow you access free resources and materials to share with patients and your practice team.

Talk to high-risk groups. One way of mitigating the impact of eye conditions like glaucoma and AMD is to target high-risk groups for early screening. By doing this you are able to intervene before a condition develops (through lifestyle changes or supplementation), or at least catch a condition in its earliest and most treatable stages. In glaucoma, high-risk groups include those with a family history of glaucoma, people of African origin or those with diabetes or high blood pressure. Talking to high-risk groups first is a more manageable, and potentially more efficient, way to reduce the number of people with avoidable blindness. Read more in our related blog post.

Invest in equipment. One of Vision 2020’s aims is to tackle global blindness with the use of technology – that which is appropriate and affordable. Is your equipment providing the best for your practice? Review what you need to screen and monitor patients better, and what could help you attract more patients.

The future of preventable blindness

According to the IAPB, tackling the main causes of avoidable blindness such as lack of basic healthcare and adherence to treatment or poor screening programmes will have the greatest impact on vision loss globally.

By addressing those issues which affect your patients most, and providing personalised and efficient care, you can help more people keep their sight. For more resources read our global perspective on glaucoma screening or our whitepaper on the importance of early AMD screening.