People who live in Greenwich and Stamford, CT, where my office is located, are, for the most part, quite fortunate. Most can afford health insurance or have jobs which provide it which allows them to access care. Others who don't have insurance can still afford the occasional visit to the eye doctor. There's even free medical care available through the local hospital. Finding a doctor is also not a problem - there are many local ophthalmology offices and retail shops with optometrists.
Unfortunately, this is not the case in many parts of the world. When one thinks of worldwide public health problems, many important diseases get well-deserved press: HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, and the list goes on and on. From an eye care perspective, commonly discussed problems include trachoma and cataracts. But one important affliction is often overlooked - people's need for prescription glasses.
Worldwide, people's need for prescription glasses (called refractive error), is a extremely overlooked public health problem. Over 2.5 billion people are visually impaired because they do not have eyeglasses. Without good vision, children can't learn and adults can't work effectively. Of the total amount of money spent on global health issues, less than 1% of it was spent on vision tests and glasses for people in developing countries.
I know, from my personal experience, that I am legally blind without my glasses or contact lenses! I would not be safe driving and certainly would not be able to see what I'm typing right now. So imagine billions of people out there who are living their lives severely limited and handicapped - all because they simply don't have glasses. Some people simply get by, even though they can't see well. There are thousands of truck drivers in Nigeria who can barely see pedestrians crossing the road in front of them. In Bolivia, there are middle-age coffee farmers who don't wear reading glasses (but need them). They can't see objects up close and can't see ripe coffee beans for harvest. Overall, the World Health Organization has estimated that the productivity lost due to vision impairment costs the global economy over $200 billion annually.
For children in developing nations, the situation is just as alarming. Children with correctable vision problems (e.g. needing glasses) run the risk of being classified as mentally handicapped or slow learners/dumb. Lacking the proper glasses severely limits their performance and ability to progress in school. It's been estimated that 65% of vision problems in the 0-14 age group are fixable with an eye exam and a pair of glasses. In a developing nation, this can effect an entire community's efforts to improve and get out of a cycle of poverty.
Madeline K. Albright, former Secretary of State, had said, "Lack fo access to eye care prevents billions of people around the world from achieving their potential, and is a major barrier to economic and human progress."
The problem is multi-factorial - money is clearly needed for glasses and the vision testing. But certain countries simply don't have enough eye doctors to provide the associated services. Interestingly, there are other social issues. In certain countries, like rural India, glasses are seen as a sign of weakness and could hinder a young woman's ability to get married.
Fortunately, there a few excellent non-profits who have recognized this problem and are contributing their resources to fighting it. Here are a few:
Our Children's Vision - an organization which provides eye health services in developing nations. They provide free and discounted glasses to children in Africa.
EYElliance - a nonprofit group whose goal is to increase access to glasses in less developed countries.
Sightsavers - a British nonprofit who treats cataract-related blindness and also is working on providing glasses to commercial drivers.
Please click on the links above and read more about the good work these groups are doing. It strikes me that this is a problem with fairly easy, concrete solutions. It just requires proper funding and the international community's interest in solving this problem. Hopefully, with more awareness, more can be done in the future.
For further reading on this topic, please see this well-written NY Times article. Some facts and figures from my blog post are taken from this article.