As an internationally acclaimed eye surgeon, Professor Fred Hollows saw many things clearly, including the gaping inequalities in eye health and the possibility that preventable blindness could be eradicated. As a social justice activist, he saw no difference between the most privileged people, and the most disadvantaged. Fred refused to accept that people in remote Indigenous communities in Australia, and the developing world, were going blind from diseases that could be easily treated.
He fought for the right of all people to high quality and affordable eye care.
Fred once said: “Every eye is an eye. When you are doing surgery [in Australia’s remote Indigenous communities], that is just as important as if you were doing eye surgery on the Prime Minister or King.”
Much of our work, as we continue Fred’s legacy and our efforts to eliminate avoidable blindness, is to restore sight to children who are needlessly blind.
Most blind children live in the poorest areas of the world
Early vision loss has a huge impact on a child’s development, on their capacity to learn, and on their access to education. For children in the most disadvantaged parts of the world, blindness locks them into the poverty cycle.
Since around three-quarters of the world’s blind children live in the most disadvantaged regions of Africa and Asia, our work eliminating blindness is key to ending poverty.
According to UNESCO, if all students in low-income countries reached basic reading skills, 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty.
Of course, before you can treat a problem, it has to be diagnosed. Screening kids early for eye disease is crucial because the damage caused to young eyes can be permanent. The Fred Hollows Foundation realized there was an army of people willing and able to help prevent avoidable blindness in children: the world’s teachers. We have developed innovative and highly successful programs to train teachers who can then educate kids about eye health, carry out basic eye checks, and refer them for treatment, if needed.
Eye health education in Cambodia and China
For example, in Cambodia, we created the country’s first eye health education and training plan, in partnership with the Cambodian Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport. Through this plan, eye health education is being built into the primary school curriculum. Already around 15,000 teachers have been trained and are teaching basic eye health to students in 1,590 schools across five provinces. More than 2.1 million children will be reached when the plan is rolled out nationwide.
Research in rural China has documented the remarkable improvements in students’ academic results when they are given access to eye screening and free glasses. As part of the research, conducted by a number of universities, 2,141 students with eye problems were given glasses. The results showed the glasses had a significant impact on the students’ test scores—almost the same as if they’d done a full extra year of schooling.
Most blindness can be treated
As the United Nations marks International Day of Persons with Disabilities it’s a good time to remind ourselves of the estimated 19 million children globally who have a visual impairment, including 1.4 million children who are blind.
Importantly, 40% of this childhood blindness can be prevented or treated with simple interventions, such as low-cost surgery or the provision of a pair of glasses.
For example, refractive error is a common condition which, if not treated, can lead to a child or adult being classified as blind. A 2010 survey in Cambodia by The Fred Hollows Foundation found that more than 90% of visual impairment among school children was due to refractive error. The solution is usually a simple pair of glasses.
According to a University of Oxford study, 815 million children around the world need glasses to see the blackboard.
The Fred Hollows Foundation is working with the Global Partnership for Education to highlight not only the vital importance of early eye screening for children, but the great economic benefits of addressing childhood blindness.
The Foundation recently released a report showing that for every $1 invested in preventing someone from going blind in the developing world, at least four times the financial benefit goes to the economy.
The report found that ending avoidable blindness would pay big dividends for developing nations—it is expected to inject $517 billion into the poorest economies over a decade. This also proves that restoring sight to children in developing countries makes solid economic sense, as well as having a life-changing impact on each affected child.
The links are clear: early eye health awareness in schools means we can save the sight of more children. These kids can then complete their education and will have a better chance at escaping the poverty cycle. We will keep working with GPE and other partners across the globe to eliminate avoidable blindness, including in children.
Brian Doolan is the Chief-Executive-Officer of the Fred Hollows Foundation