Combating blindness in Africa

Blindness in AfricaAccording to the International Center for Eye Care Education (ICEE), South Africa, “Africa carries a disproportionate responsibility in terms of blindness and visual impairment.” Despite the fact that Africa makes up roughly 10% of the total population, the WHO estimates that Africa is home to 15.3% of global blindness. 

Eye Diseases Impacting Communities Across Africa

Common eye conditions such as cataracts are raging through African countries, leading to vision deterioration and blindness in some cases. However, some eye diseases, such as onchocerciasis, are regional to certain river valley-based farming communities. Onchocerciasis, also known as “river blindness,” exists mainly in Africa, with 99% of its victims being African. The disease, caused by a parasitic worm transmitted to humans by infected blackfly bites, has been effectively reduced by population-based treatment in other countries around the globe. However, in order to be effective, 80% of a community must partake in mass drug administration (MDA).

Blindness in African Children

A major cause for concern is blindness in African children. According to a study conducted by Gilbert and Foster, “in low-income countries with high under-5 mortality rates, the prevalence [of blindness in children] may be as high as 1.5 per 1,000 children.” To put this into perspective, in higher-income countries, 0.3 per 1,000 children are blind. Blindness erects barriers to education and job prospects. 

Looking Forward

Thanks to advancements in the fields of optometry and technology, 80% of conditions causing sight loss are curable. Therefore, greater access to eye care across the African continent would dramatically decrease the number of adults and children developing vision issues. Not only would increased access to health care have a drastic impact on the quality of many people’s lives, it would also reduce the burden of blindness on the economy. A recent study found that 160.7 million people suffering from vision loss were within the working age bracket. As a result, around $408.5 billion is lost in potential productivity annually. 

In Mali, located in West Africa, where the climate is harsh on crops and clean water is scarce, malnutrition is common. Malnutrition is known to be a cause of cataracts, a disease that causes the clouding of vision. The damage caused by the disease can be improved with a 10-minute surgery; however, with many Malians living in remote communities, access to medical assistance is scarce. Many charities such as “Embrace Relief” facilitate traveling doctors to provide check-ups and surgeries to these communities in need. With the help of donations and willing volunteers, Embrace Relief has delivered 60,000 health checkups and 3,700 cataract surgeries. 

Blindness in Africa is massively exacerbated by the lack of access to appropriate health care. Furthermore, the African economy would see improvement — even if small — if access to eye care were improved across the continent. 

– Christian Vince
Photo: Flickr