Save millions from blindness by investing in eye care

Mama Alice Njeri has her eyesight checked by a doctor during a free medical camp at Sigona Kiambu County. [George Njunge, Standard]

Becoming blind due to illness or an accident means loss of individual independence, self-esteem, social networks, extreme poverty and hunger, gender equality and community participation.

Loss of eyesight could mean loss of a bread winner, a mother or a father or even loss of employment, making one become dependent on wellwishers, friends and relatives.

According to a study entitled 'Global economic productivity losses from vision impairment and blindness' published by medical research journal, Lancet, loss of eyesight means a global economic productivity loss of Sh49.2 trillion.

WHO says the situation could worsen as a further 1.1 billion people living with avoidable blindness who require cataract surgery, spectacle corrections, ocular allergy treatment, diabetic retinopathy and trachoma are denied access to basic eye treatment services.

The International Association for Prevention of Blindness (IAPB) asserts that the number of blind people could rise by 55 per cent by 2050 if no new investments from public and the private sector are made towards supporting provision of eyecare services.

Data from the Health ministry shows while only 20 per cent of all Kenyans in need are able to access eye health services, another 15.5 per cent of the population in dire need of quality eye care services remain untreated and about 0.7 per cent of all rural Kenyans are blind in the better eye and another 2.5 per cent have vision which is substantially impaired.

A recent study conducted in Nakuru County estimated that 92,000 adults aged above 50 years had visual impairment of whom 11,600 were blind, out of a total population of approximately 4.3 million

Kenya recently adopted the Seventh National Strategic Plan for Eye Health 2020-2025 that is informed by the Eye Health and Blindness Prevention Strategic Plan 2012-2018, the National Health Sector Strategic Plan 2018-2024, the National Health Policy 2014-2030, the WHO Global Action plan 2014-2019 and the World Report on Vision 2019.

However, despite significant progress in the introduction and development of national plans and committees, the prevalence of avoidable blindness remains unacceptably high in many countries and communities. There is a need to address critical gaps such as scarcity of financial, human and structural resources required for achieving national agendas for eye health and prevention of blindness.

According to the IAPB, there are 4.8 million blind and 16.6 million visually impaired persons in Africa with another 100 million with near vision impairment. Despite this, less than 1 per cent of the global number of ophthalmologists practice in Africa. This means there are only 2.7 ophthalmologists per million people in sub-Saharan Africa. In addition, the few eye specialists are often concentrated in urban areas where many are in private practice, leaving the rural areas with a poor or non-existent service. Further, only 13 countries in Africa meet the minimum requirement of one eye health professional to 55,000 people.

Significant investment in eye health is required to respond to current and future needs in preventing avoidable blindness.

Ms Eboso is the Franchise Head- Ophthalmology, Novartis East Africa Cluster