08/10/2015 8:17 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Why Eye-care Is Integral To The Vision Of A Shining India

REBECCA CONWAY via Getty Images
In this photograph taken on August 14, 2014, an Indian patient adjusts a pair of glasses used to test eyesight during an examination at the Dr Shroff Charity Eye Hospital Vision Centre in Thanagazi, some 47 kms from Alwar in the state of Rajasthan. India's Dr Shroff Charity Eye Hospital operates a network of hospitals and vision centres in towns and villages in the states of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, and in the capital New Delhi, in an attempt to tackle avoidable blindness. Offering low-cost or pro-bono treatment for conditions like cataracts and glaucoma, staff travel to remote areas to provide check-ups at field camps, and work in vision centres in towns and villages, referring certain cases to larger hospitals. The Shroff network aims extend access to low-cost, high-quality eye care to those who might not normally be able to access or afford it. More women than men suffer problems with eyesight, according to staff at the Dr Shroff Charity Eye Hospital, because of the societal roles they take on. Women traditionally spend a greater amount of time working outdoors, exposed to harsh sunlight and UV rays. They often feed male family members and children first, consuming less-nutritious meals after others have eaten, and cook over naked flames where they exposed to smoke from animal dung, leaves or coal used as fuel. Women also earn less, and live in more unhygienic conditions which can lead to infections, while male family members often relocate to towns or cities for work, where conditions and salaries are better. The World Health Organisation estimates four in five cases of blindness globally are avoidable. World Sight Day is marked in 2014 on October 9, and calls for 'No More Avoidable Blindness'. AFP PHOTO/Rebecca Conway (Photo credit should read Rebecca Conway/AFP/Getty Images)

Imagine a life without sight. Scary and difficult isn't it? Eyes are such an important organ of the human body. They allow us to see the beauty of this wonderful world. Yet, we pay so little attention to our eyes. If we have fever or an upset stomach we immediately rush to a doctor. But if we suffer regular headaches or squint while reading or have trouble seeing distant objects, we delay going to an ophthalmologist till the problem takes a serious turn. Why is eye-care so low down our priority list? Why do we neglect such a vital organ?

According to the WHO, globally about 285 million people are visually impaired; 39 million of them are blind while 246 million have poor vision. The causes of moderate and severe vision impairment worldwide are uncorrected near-sightedness, farsightedness and astigmatism. India's numbers are even more shocking. Our country holds the dubious distinction of being the "blind capital of the world" - India is home to 40% of the world's blind population; one-third of our population needs glasses but doesn't have access to them.

"[A]ccording to a study conducted among Indian workers, good eye-care and vision correction led to a 30% increase in their incomes and a 25% increase in productivity"

What's more, 75% of the blind in this country suffer from avoidable conditions that were caused due to lack of awareness and shortage of optometrists and donated eyes for the treatment of corneal blindness.

Dismal as it may sound, the situation is not beyond repair. Sight is a fundamental human right and I believe if we take some concrete steps, we can ensure vision for all. The root cause for the increase in the numbers of patients with blindness in India is an inadequate primary eye-care system. In India, there are only about 12,000 ophthalmologists for a 1 billion-plus population, resulting in a ratio of one ophthalmologist for every 90,000 people. In sharp contrast, there is one ophthalmologist for every 15,800 people in the US.

Thankfully, India has woken up to the need for eye-care with the government making policy initiatives like the National Programme for Control of Blindness (NPCB). Again, the entry of several service providers and active participation by NGOs is raising awareness about eye-care in India. But a lot remains to be done when it comes to awareness. For example, how many of us are aware that 8 October is World Sight Day? This is a global event that was created in 2000 to draw attention to blindness and visual impairment. It has been integrated into Vision 2020, which was launched by the WHO together with more than 20 international NGOs that aim to provide technical support and advocacy to prevent blindness worldwide by the year 2020. I think World Sight Day is a great way to engage with a wider audience and remind them of the importance of eye health.

Affected vision is not an individual problem because it not only impacts people's personal life, but also reduces their skills and productivity. The WHO estimates that poor vision results in an economic productivity loss of $275 billion worldwide, with India losing $37 billion. In fact, according to a study conducted among Indian workers, good eye-care and vision correction led to a 30% increase in their incomes and a 25% increase in productivity.

So you see all data and findings point towards an urgent need to bring the focus on eyewear and encouraging people to get their eyes checked at regular intervals. I get my eyes checked every six months. If not every six months, I recommend a yearly check-up at least. If vision problems are detected at an early stage, appropriate solutions can be prescribed which will go a long way in reducing the levels of visual impairment in the country. Productivity will go up manifold if everyone who needs an eyewear has one.

Key decision makers, policy makers, government officials and other important stakeholders need to redefine eye-care to make it more sustainable and easily accessible for all. Let no one be deprived the joy of life due to visual impairment.

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