2.2 billion people around the world suffer from eye conditions, visual impairment: WHO

A staggering 2.2 billion people around the world suffer from eye conditions and visual impairment today, the UN health agency said on Tuesday, noting that ageing populations, changing lifestyles and limited access to eye care are among the main drivers of the rising numbers of people living with vision impairment.

Of the 2.2 billion people living with vision impairment or blindness, over one billion cases could have been prevented or have yet to be addressed. These billion people are not getting the care they need for conditions like short and far sightedness, glaucoma and cataract, according to the first World report on vision issued by the World Health Organization (WHO).

While welcoming recent successes in eliminating common conditions such as trachoma in eight countries, WHO highlighted evidence indicating that eye problems are increasingly linked to lifestyle choices, including screen time. Alarcos Cieza, who heads WHO’s work to address blindness and vision impairment, told journalists in Geneva that youngsters are among those at risk.

“In children, one of the factors that may influence the increased number of children with myopia, is that children do not spend enough time outdoors. It is a trend that is already observed in some countries like in China,” he said. “But of course, it is a trend that we can predict in other countries if they are an everyday habit, especially with child populations.”

The organization said that the problem with staying inside, is that the lens in the eye rarely relaxes. “When you’re indoors, the lens inside your eyes is in a complete flex state, or it’s flexed but when you’re outside, it’s nice and relaxed,” WHO’s Stuart Keel said.

Pointing to recent scientific data from China investigating the “clear link” between time spent outdoors and the delayed onset of later-stage short-sightedness, Keel said that studies on “near-task” activities such as watching video on a tablet computer, were “not as conclusive at this stage”.

According to the WHO’s World Report On Vision, the burden of impairment tends to be greater in low and middle-income countries. Women also suffer disproportionately, along with migrants, indigenous peoples, and those with disabilities and rural communities.

“Eye conditions and vision impairment are widespread, and far too often they still go untreated,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. “It is unacceptable that 65 million people are blind or have impaired sight when their vision could have been corrected overnight with a cataract operation, or that over 800 million struggle in everyday activities because they lack access to a pair of glasses.”

Population growth and ageing – along with lifestyle changes and urbanization – will also “dramatically increase” the number of people with eye conditions, vision impairment and blindness in the coming decades, the WHO report said.

One of the study’s main findings is that prevention is key, since at least one billion people are living with sight problems that could have been avoided with timely treatment.

Addressing this backlog of vision impairment or blindness owing to short and far-sightedness, and cataracts, will require USD 14.3 billion, the agency said. It points out that prevention is particularly important in low-income regions including western and eastern sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where blindness rates are on average eight times higher than in high-income nations.

The combination of a growing and ageing population will also “significantly” increase the total number of people with eye conditions, but this too could be turned around with preventative measures.

Typical conditions that could be treated if diagnosed early, include diabetic eye disease, along with cataracts and glaucoma.

“Vision impairment should not be seen as part of the ageing process,” Cieza said, “because if you receive the appropriate care, for example, in the case of glaucoma, you can prevent the vision impairment associated with glaucoma, or if you receive cataract surgery, you can avoid the visual impairment associated with cataracts.”

Another key thrust of WHO’s report is that high-quality eye care should be accessible to everyone, regardless of their income and location. To do this, treatment should be included in countries’ national health plans as an essential part of the overall aim of achieving effective universal health coverage, it says.

Stronger integration of eye care is needed within national health services, including at primary health care level, to ensure that the eye care needs of more people are addressed, including through prevention, early detection, treatment and rehabilitation, the report said.

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