According to new preliminary data released by the World Health Organization (WHO), worldwide, 285.3 million people are visually impaired. In the past 10 years, VISION 2020: The Right to Sight (a joint global initiative of the International Agency for the Prevention for Blindness (IAPB) and WHO) has contributed to a 10% reduction in the number of visually impaired people worldwide, which was announced at a meeting hosted by the WHO in Geneva earlier this week, as part of World Sight Day activities.
All the more impressive is that this is set against a growing global population and an 18% increase in the world’s population aged over 50, the population most vulnerable to visual impairment. The number of blind people has decreased by 5.2 million (from 45 million in 2004 to 39.8 million in the present day), representing a decline of 13% in the last six years.
While the new figures represent a significant achievement, challenges remain if VISION 2020 is to achieve its goal of eliminating the main causes of avoidable blindness by the year 2020. Among these are that nearly half of the cases of visual impairment are due to uncorrected refractive errors (such as nearsightedness), in most of which cases normal vision could be restored with eye glasses.
While blinding infectious diseases such as trachoma (a persistent, contagious form of conjunctivitis) and onchocerciasis (river blindness) are on target for global eradication by 2020, chronic causes of blindness, such as cataract, age related macular degeneration (AMD) and diabetic retinopathy are growing in prevalence worldwide, even in the developed world. This highlights the modern trend whereby infectious diseases are decreasing as a result of public health interventions, while chronic diseases, which affect both the developed and the developing world are on the rise.
These new data and the changing dynamic they represent have been announced by VISION 2020 as part of World Sight Day 2010, the international day of awareness to focus attention on the global issue of avoidable blindness and visual impairment. A number of events are planned across the globe, including an IAPB-hosted event at the CERN Globe of Science and Innovation in Geneva.
Bruce Spivey, MD, International Council of Ophthalmology President, today commented on current blindness trends saying, “The greatest challenges facing VISION 2020 and its supporters in the next 10 years are chronic conditions such as diabetic retinopathy and age related macular degeneration, which are increasing not only in developing countries, but all over the world, with further rapid increase expected as populations age and lifestyles change.”
This year marks the midpoint of the VISION 2020 commitment to eliminate the main causes of avoidable blindness by 2020. In the past 10 years, thanks to VISION 2020 efforts, all WHO member states have made formal commitments to investing in eye care, two World Health Assembly resolutions have urged all WHO member states to develop and implement VISION 2020 national plans and more than 100 countries have drafted national eye care plans.
Although several programmes have been implemented to tackle chronic causes of blindness, further awareness, resources and preventative measures are still needed in both developed and developing countries across the globe. This will be one of the main priorities for VISION 2020 over the next 10 years, requiring the united efforts of NGOs, development agencies and eye care professionals worldwide.