A Letter from the President and CEO: Putting Eye Health on the Global Agenda
Close your eyes and imagine the world you have come to know in complete darkness. For millions of people around the world this is their reality. Many have never seen the colors of a rainbow, witnessed a sunset or even seen themselves in a mirror. Today, October 13th, is World Sight Day, a day acknowledged globally to bring international attention to blindness and vision impairment. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that across the globe approximately 285 million people are visually impaired. Of these, 39 million people are blind. This is five million more than the number of individuals living with HIV.
Like HIV, blindness occurs more frequently in underserved areas of the world, with 90 percent of blind people living in developing countries. Blindness traps a family and an entire community in a cycle of poverty. Lack of sight has a tremendous impact on the individual affected and his or her family’s quality of life and economic stability. Blindness not only takes away a person’s vision, but also hinders their ability to gain an education and ultimately contribute to their community.
In fact, according to the International Organization for Blindness Prevention (IAPB), the annual global economic impact of blindness and low vision due to lost economic productivity was estimated at $42 billion in 2000 alone. In developing countries, where services for the blind are scarce and social attitudes towards disabilities are highly stigmatized, the negative impact on economic development continues to grow exponentially.
There is hope for these communities. Eighty percent of all vision impairment is preventable. For example, cataracts, which are the leading cause of global blindness, can be cured with one of the most cost effective surgeries available. Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP), the condition that caused singer Stevie Wonder’s blindness, is becoming more prevalent in premature infants in developing countries with new neonatal units, but is an easily preventable and treatable health condition. Yet, as we at ORBIS have learned over the past three decades of working to save sight worldwide, in both instances – and far too many others – there is a severe dearth of properly trained medical professionals and an equally serious lack of equipment and facilities in the underserved world.
Consider the case of 14-month-old Fischer Valentino Muñiz Centeno of Cuzco, Peru, born at 31 weeks’ gestation and weighing just 3 lbs 1 oz. Because of his low birth weight, doctors knew he was at risk for ROP. Across the developing world, advances in medical technology and the development of advanced neonatal care, are enabling more premature infants to survive. However, an unintended consequence is that many are at risk for ROP from poor oxygen monitoring during prematurity. Specifically, ROP occurs as a result of abnormal vessel growth within the retina because of excess oxygen. Fischer was born in a facility that was unable to treat his condition.
He was transferred to Lima, where he was successfully treated as the result of an excellent ROP program established by an ORBIS-supported partner, Instituto Damos Vision (IDV). Fischer is one of the lucky ones. He now has a stronger opportunity to go to school, gain employment and contribute to his family and community’s economy. But there are millions of other children and adults who are not as fortunate. That is why in 1999, WHO and the IAPB established Vision 2020: The Right to Sight. This global initiative is a partnership between organizations like ORBIS and governments around the world to promote global eye health and the elimination of avoidable blindness.
Significant progress is being made, but the work to eliminate blindness is far from over. Among numerous other Vision 2020 achievements, all 193 WHO member states are formally committed to investing in eye care, nearly 91 countries have drafted national eye care plans, and most importantly, 15 million fewer people are blind compared with projections made when the initiative was launched. Hundreds of volunteer eye surgeons, optometrists and others working with ORBIS have contributed to this latter number by performing more than 800,000 surgeries and training over 280,000 medical professionals in 89 countries across the globe. These initiatives and successes are a considerable step in the right direction.
The links between economic independence and eye health highlight the importance of the right to sight. Global elimination of blindness will lead to greater economic empowerment for underserved communities around the world. When we lift an individual out of blindness we also lift a community into a greater socioeconomic status and independence. Today, as we recognize World Sight Day, we also recognize the need to advocate for global eye health as part of the fight against global poverty.
Barbara A. DeBuono, MD, MPH
President and CEO