Investment into vision care could stem major economic losses

A man gets his eyes tested at a free eye-care camp in Mumbai, India. Photo by: REUTERS / Danish Siddiqui

BARCELONA — $244 billion is lost from the global economy each year because of problems with eyesight, according to a report led by researchers at the Brien Holden Vision Institute — but it could be rectified by investing $20 billion into better eye care, the authors said.

The report looked specifically at the problem of myopia, or nearsightedness, which affects 538 million people worldwide. The impairment can often be corrected with lenses or surgery but many people — particularly in East Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia regions — lack access to these services and are unable to work.

“The impact of vision impairment on lives can be substantial, including affecting employment, education, and social interaction,” said Tim Fricke, one of the authors of the report in a press release.

Substantial funding could fill the gaps, Fricke said. Investing in the training of eye care practitioners in countries where there is a gap, funding graduate positions in clinics, and developing better infrastructure and human resources could mean more people are able to access treatment, resume work, and contribute to the economy, he said.

“This isn’t throwing pairs of glasses out of an airplane and hoping they find the right person. It’s about investing in the resources that are needed in order to deliver care on an ongoing and sustainable basis,” Fricke explained in an interview with Devex. “You’d hope local governments, civil society, and private industry would invest in those places [with the worst level of vision impairment], but by definition, there’s no resources in the places themselves to invest so international donors then become important.”  

Lost productivity resulting from myopia-related vision impairment represents only part of the overall economic burden of vision impairment. Other vision issues — astigmatisms and far-sightedness — that can affect a person’s ability to work and expenses related to eye examinations were not covered in the analysis.

Matthew Wheeler, vice president of strategy and communications at SEE International — a humanitarian organization providing medical, surgical, and educational services to restore sight and prevent blindness worldwide — said in an interview that while $20 billion was a large amount, it was a modest investment compared to what individuals could get back in increased productivity and quality of life.

“However, you need a broad base of support because it is a lot to ask for,” he added.

Without the increased investment — which Wheeler said he was hopeful would come via individuals, private foundations, and corporations — tens of millions of people will be unnecessarily blind, he said.

“With the growing global population that’s getting older, and population booms, the longer we wait to address the need, it’s just going to grow and grow and we’re going to get that much further behind,” he said.

He called for the investment — if it were to come through — to also focus on training and capacity building of in-country ophthalmologists, but emphasized that organizations would need to be coordinated in their approach to avoid duplication.

Devex, with financial support from our partner Essilor, is exploring challenges, solutions, and innovations in eye care and vision. Visit the Focus on: Vision page for more.

About the author

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    Rebecca Root

    Rebecca Root is a Reporter and Editorial Associate at Devex producing news stories, video, and podcasts as well as partnership content. She has a background in finance, travel, and global development journalism and has written for a variety of publications while living and working in New York, London, and Barcelona.