A health worker conducts a cataract screening in Sierra Leone. Photo by: Mustafa Öztürk / IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation / CC BY-NC-ND

Imagine being unable to see when a 20-minute operation could restore your sight, or unable to work or succeed in school because you need a pair of glasses. It may seem unthinkable. Yet this is the reality for hundreds of millions of people suffering from poor vision in countries with insufficient health care resources. And as the world’s population grows and ages, global blindness and visual impairment are expected to triple over the next three decades. A crisis is on the horizon that, if left unaddressed, could lead blindness to increase to 115 million people globally, with another 588 million suffering from moderate or severe vision impairment.

These are alarming statistics. But the good news is that 75% of all blindness and visual impairment is treatable or preventable. If we are to avoid a looming crisis, we must be strategic in how we target and scale up our efforts — and we must start now. Here’s how.

First, we must upskill local eye health teams to provide consistent care for their communities over the long term. We know that it is not enough to drop in health services to rural and resource-poor communities. As heads of the world’s four leading not-for-profit eye health organizations, our teams have more than 240 years of combined experience in 55 countries, including in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

Those areas are home to the vast majority of visually impaired people and, not coincidentally, are where health systems are in crisis due to a lack of medical professionals, including eye health workers. Meeting demand means providing quality training not just for surgeons, but also nurses, social workers, and support staff who can help to share the work of patient care.

Second, it will be essential to utilize innovative teaching tools and technology to take programs to scale and further our reach. The number of people in need of eye care worldwide is outpacing the number of trained ophthalmologists. Remotely connecting eye health professionals with experts across the world is one way to turn the tide.

Likewise, using tools — such as artificial intelligence and telemedicine — to more efficiently screen and diagnose common conditions will become the way of the future. Doing so will ensure communities without access to eye care can undergo routine checkups at local clinics, only receiving referrals to larger, and often distant, health centers when necessary, reducing the burden on doctors and patients alike.

Finally, we must join forces. Now is the time to act by collaborating to create sustainable eye health resources. We have already seen examples of what’s possible when like-minded organizations join forces to amplify their impact. For example, Vision 2020 — a global project of the World Health Organization and the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness to decrease avoidable blindness, ending next year — has reduced blindness down to 36 million people in the world at a time when the number of blind people had been projected to double.

Together with global partners, our four organizations have played a leading role in reducing the number of people at risk of trachoma — the leading cause of infectious blindness around the world — by an astounding 91% since 2002.

WHO recently published its first-ever “World Report on Vision,” which reinforces the urgency of the crisis. The report says there are 2.2 billion people in the world with impaired vision and, for at least 1 billion of them, it could have been prevented or treated. We hope the report helps galvanize and support governments, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, to strengthen their eye care systems and deliver on the commitments made by governments during the U.N. General Assembly in September to address eye health needs as part of universal health coverage.

When people cannot see, it can be much harder for them to actively participate in their local economies and social engagements, such as finding and keeping a job, attending family celebrations, or even running errands and completing chores. Blindness can result in social isolation and a higher risk of death related to depression and falls.

Blindness and visual impairment can trap families in a cycle of poverty. On the flip side, we know that every $1 invested in eye health in developing countries results in $4 in economic gain. Consider that the most prevalent causes of avoidable blindness and visual impairment are cataracts and refractive errors, such as nearsightedness, farsightedness, and astigmatism. These common conditions can be easily corrected, delivering benefits far beyond restoring sight.

A World Bank report declared routine cataract surgery one of the most cost-effective public health interventions, while a recent study among tea pickers in India showed that simply providing a pair of glasses led to marked improvements in productivity and earnings, with results even higher among workers over the age of 50.

Poor vision is also a gender equity issue. Currently, 55% of the world’s blind or visually impaired people are women and girls. Efforts to ensure access to eye care will particularly benefit them, and if we address this issue, they will be better able to contribute to community life and seek education and employment.

Our vision is clear: With these approaches, we can fight this crisis and improve the future of people and communities around the world. Many problems facing humanity appear intractable, but this is one problem we know how to resolve.

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.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Caroline Harper

    Dr. Caroline Harper has been chief executive of Sightsavers since 2005. Under her leadership, Sightsavers has expanded significantly, treating millions of people and advocating for policy reforms around the world.
  • John "Bob" Ranck

    John “Bob” Ranck joined Orbis International in 2016. He came to Orbis with more than 30 years of experience as strategist, leader, and manager in a career that spans across military, manufacturing, and small business sectors.
  • Ian Wishart

    Ian Wishart is one of Australia’s most experienced international development specialists. He has spent the past 28 years involved in virtually every aspect of aid and human rights including emergency relief operations, long-term development, and influential policy and advocacy initiatives. Ian joined The Fred Hollows Foundation as new CEO in March 2018.
  • Rainer Brockhaus

    Dr. Rainer Brockhaus joined as CEO of Christoffel-Blindenmission Germany to lead programs, fundraising, and communications in 2009. From 2016 to 2018, he was appointed as chair of the international leadership team of CBM International.