Author of A Night With Saddam
WHO Prioritizes Treating Vision Loss in the Developing World

WHO Prioritizes Treating Vision Loss in the Developing World

While many vision problems can be easily corrected with glasses, treatment, or surgery, poor sight and blindness can be devastating in the developing world, where comprehensive eye care is rare. Bad vision can impact individuals, families, and communities, as it limits one’s ability to work and can lead to social isolation. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 250 million people have impaired vision, and of those, 36 million are blind.

In response to the prevalence of vision loss around the world, the WHO is working on a “World Report on Vision,” which it expects to complete in 2018. The report will outline evidence of the impact of vision loss and include details about how to prevent and treat impairment and rehabilitate patients’ vision. It also will offer recommendations on how to introduce all-inclusive vision care in countries where it is desperately needed.

Here are some of the impacts of vision loss that the WHO hopes to address through better vision care and healthcare.


According to the WHO, close to 90 percent of people with impaired vision reside in developing countries. Without vision correction, many people with vision impairment cannot work, which creates a connection between blindness and poverty. This relationship can become cyclical, as people who live in poverty often have little or no access to healthcare and those with impaired vision can’t maximize their ability to work.

Without proper care, people are more liable to contract eye infections and other diseases that, without treatment, can lead to blindness. “Sadly, disability is both caused by poverty and causes poverty,” Brien Holden, an international leader in eye care and vision research, stated in the journal Clinical and Experimental Optometry in 2007.

Vision loss can also lead a family into poverty, especially if the family’s breadwinner has impaired vision and is forced to stop working. When family members focus on caring for a relative with vision impairment, they also are limiting their own opportunities.

Increased Mortality

While eye disease isn’t directly linked to mortality, it can set an individual’s health on a downward trajectory. Holden calls blindness and poverty “a tragic, even lethal, combination” and notes connections between blindness and mortality.

In a survey of literature about poverty and blindness, Kate Gooding of Sight Savers International observes that people who are blind and living in poverty in Africa are likely to live as many as 20 fewer years than people who are poor but have sight.  A study in Tanzania showed that as people’s vision became worse, mortality rates increased.


Lack of Access to Education

In the developing world, children often take care of family members with vision loss who need help with daily tasks. These children may not go to school as a result of their caretaking duties, and the lack of an education decreases their chances of getting out of poverty.

While the WHO completes its “World Report on Vision,” it already has compiled a list of “priority” eye diseases for its Vision 2020 Plan. The WHO describes this plan, which was launched in 1999, as a “global initiative that aims to eliminate avoidable blindness by the year 2020.”

Here are some examples:



A progressive eye disease that can lead to blindness, glaucoma affects about 4.5 million people worldwide. Researchers don’t know much about how to prevent glaucoma, but sight can be maintained with correct treatment.


This disease, which is prevalent in older adults, clouds the eye’s lens and impairs vision. According to the WHO, cataracts are the cause of about half the cases of blindness in the world. Cataracts typically can be removed with surgery, but many people in the developing world remain blind due to this disease because they don’t have access to adequate eye care.

Onchocerciasis (river blindness)

This insect-borne eye disease primarily strikes people in Africa, where blackflies that thrive in lush riverside areas transmit it to humans. The disease, which causes bleeding and eye inflammation that can lead to blindness, has been somewhat managed through controlling the blackfly and with doses of the drug ivermectin. However, the WHO still considers it a priority disease.

Childhood blindness

Causes of childhood blindness are specific to where children live, their socio-economic status, and the proximity of eye treatment and healthcare, including prenatal care for mothers. While care for childhood blindness varies by the disease, many conditions can be successfully treated if caught early.

Many eye problems that lead to vision loss are preventable or treatable. For example, antibiotics can stop many eye infections, and measles vaccinations can prevent vision loss associated with that disease. However, many eye conditions typically require immediate, ongoing, or preventative treatment, so eye care and primary healthcare must be easily accessible.

Eye treatment centers, which are rare in the developing world, can provide cataract and other corrective surgeries that can restore vision in many cases. Studies have shown that when people in developing countries receive treatments and other interventions for eye disease, vision loss can be reversed. With their sight restored, patients and their caretakers can return to work or school, which gives them a chance to stop the cycle of poverty.