A global commitment to raise awareness of the serious shortfall in the delivery of eye care services in developing countries, has been the centrepiece of discussions in South Africa, by world leaders in eye care and vision health.
A statement – endorsed the World Congress on Refractive Error (WCRE) and released on World Sight Day last month – advocates a renewed commitment to combat the risking number of eye conditions such as myopia (short-sightedness), hyperopia (long-sightedness) and other common eye conditions known as refractive errors.
The industry promise – Vision Health and Development; Enhancing our Commitment – is to be delivered to governments and peak health care and development agencies worldwide.
The WCRE, held in the South African city of Durban in September, attracted 600 delegates, including eye care professionals, researchers, government representatives and leading figures from across the world to address the problem of uncorrected refractive error – the leading cause of avoidable blindness and vision impairment in the world.
Dr. Tom Little – the American optometrist killed while on a humanitarian health mission to Afghanistan – has been posthumously bestowed with the International Optometrist of the Year Award
The Congress heard that poor levels of health care in developing communities are contributing to poverty and restricting economic growth.
Leading advocate, Professor Brien Holden, CEO of the International Centre for Eyecare Education (ICEE), told the gathering: “The cost of not providing eye care services to those in need is well in excess of approximately AUD$269 billion per annum, just in lost productivity.
“The sad part is, the number of those affected by uncorrected vision problems, and the cost associated with the inability to see clearly to work or participate in education or in the community, will only rise if we don’t act right now to recognise and take action against this crisis.”
The Congress heard a staggering 670 million people are avoidably blind or vision impaired because they don’t have access to simple vision correction (spectacles) that could be provided at a relatively low cost compared to the loss of productivity and quality of life.
The first World Congress on Refractive Error, held in 2007, resulted in the Durban Declaration on Refractive Error and Service Development, which called for a greater emphasis on the delivery of eye care services to those in the most underserved communities.
High profile speakers to the conference included Greenpeace International Executive Director Dr. Kumi Naidoo; Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane, from African Monitor; Lalita Ramdas, former President of the International Council for Adult Education; social campaigner Zanele Twala from ActionAid International and noted human rights campaigner Noel Kututwa from Amnesty International.
Dr. Naidoo, said: “When we hold global conferences in Africa, it’s our way of saying that we are a part of solving global problems.”
Sharing his perspective on how eye care fits into the development agenda, Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane commented: “Every human being, created in the image of God, should have access to what is required to live.
“From where I come from, it is the moral function of a state to coordinate their resources to assist those in need. We need to have a comprehensive, coherent, coordinated movement with governments, private business, professionals and civil society to ensure that we can live our lives fully and we reach the goals of VISION 2020 the Right to Sight.”
Zanele Twala, from ActionAid International, gave a gender perspective, noting that women are more likely to be living in poverty.
“Hunger, poverty and equality are entwined. If your children do not have enough to eat, they are unlikely to go to school or access health care,” she said.
“We meet at a time when our leaders are meeting in New York to discuss the Millennium Development Goals. I know we are unlikely to achieve the first goal to alleviate extreme poverty. I also wonder whether the measures we are taking now will achieve our goals in eye care, but I have hope.”
Amnesty International’s Noel Kututwa spoke passionately about linking basic human rights, saying “all human beings should enjoy all human rights, economic, political, social rights including the right to enjoy good health. All rights must come together at once – not social rights without political rights or economic rights”.
Lalita Ramdas, the former President of the International Council for Adult Education, asked: “Why is it, and what is it, that prevents us from in fact being able to find the solutions… the AUD$5 billion dollars Professor Holden said would probably deal with the problem across the world. We have spent trillions bailing out banks.
“To address the issue of providing eye care to more than 670 million in need of an eye examination and glasses to see clearly, most in the developing world, we need awareness.”
“It is still a sad fact that numbers are increasing of those suffering from malnutrition, poverty, literacy issues and, of course, the need for eye care,” she added.
The link between avoidable vision impairment and poverty is well-established. The disability has a major impact on people’s lives, creating profound economic disadvantage, affecting education and employment opportunities and creating social isolation.
The meeting concluded with the resolution to promote and support accelerated action, calling on all governments, institutions and development organisations as well as people worldwide, to work together to address the issue as a matter of urgency. The Commitment was signed by representatives of the International Agency for Prevention of Blindness (Africa), the International Council of Ophthalmology, World Council of Optometry (WCO) and the ICEE.
Following the Congress, the sixth World Conference on Optometric Education (WCOE), took place, drawing together eye care educators from around the world.
Caroline Hyde-Price, Executive Director of the WCO, said there was a “real buzz” and some very positive discussions coming from both conferences.
“Educators are at the forefront in the delivery of standards of eye care and they inspire and influence countless across the world each year. The passion for their work is what will help address the issues of service delivery that was so poignantly discussed.
“The two conferences together were truly a landmark which has galvanised the profession and focussed us collectively on provision of quality care worldwide. It’s a stunning outcome,” she said.
Also at the WCO conference, Dr. Tom Little – the American optometrist killed while on a humanitarian health mission to Afghanistan – has been posthumously bestowed with the International Optometrist of the Year Award.
In a touching testimonial, Professor George Woo, President of the WCO, said Dr. Little had “dedicated his life to providing eye and vision care in a very difficult and challenging environment… the WCO is proud to recognise Dr. Little as an outstanding individual and professional.”
Dr. Little, who had been based in Afghanistan for more than 30 years, was working for International Assistance Mission when he was killed in Nuristan province. It is estimated that International Assistance eye care work has benefited an estimated five million Afghans since 1966.