Ophthalmologist and Physician-Scientist
The Vision Crisis in Africa

The Vision Crisis in Africa

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 1.3 billion people globally struggle with vision impairment to some degree. While no group of people is immune to eye disease and vision loss, people living in certain regions suffer more widely and have far less access to quality eye care than those in other areas. In particular, people living in low-income countries in Africa and Asia have the highest rates of vision-related problems — many of which could be prevented or even cured with better access to medical care.

To better understand the vision struggles of the world’s most vulnerable populations, here is an overview of blindness in Africa, the unique issues the people of Africa collectively face and what must be done to address the growing health crisis.

1. The African continent is home to a significant percentage of the world’s blind population.

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Data gathered by WHO suggests that approximately 15.3 percent of the world’s blind population lives in Africa. The nonprofit organization Vision 2020 Australia suggests as many as 19 percent of the world’s blind population lives in Africa. Either statistic is concerning because Africa accounts for only 11 percent of the total global population. Africa, along with Asia, is also home to 75 percent of the world’s blind children — childhood blindness, according to WHO, is linked with socioeconomic development. Malnutrition early in life (particularly vitamin A deficiency), corneal scarring from measles, rubella cataracts, ophthalmia neonatorum, and limited access to primary health care and eye care are the leading causes of childhood blindness in low-income countries.

Making this vision crisis even more alarming is the fact that WHO estimates 80 percent of the cases of blindness are preventable and treatable. The leading cause of avoidable blindness in Africa is cataracts, which can generally be cured through surgery. Unfortunately, people in African countries tend to be affected by the disease nearly a decade sooner than people in other regions of the world, and many have little hope of procuring the fast and simple surgery to restore their eyesight within a matter of days.

2. People in Africa struggle with regional eye diseases along with more globally common eye health issues.

While much of the world struggles to deal with eye diseases such as glaucoma, age-related macular degeneration and cataracts, people in African countries also contend with a rare, blindness-inducing illness named onchocerciasis, which is caused by a parasite found in rivers in sub-Saharan countries. Known commonly as “river blindness,” the disease is caused by a parasitic worm that can live for 14 years beneath a person’s skin. The parasites are transmitted when people are bitten by a blackfly carrying the parasite. Blackflies commonly breed in rivers, which earned the disease its colloquial name. Left untreated, the parasites cause severe itching and lesions within the eye, leading to irreversible blindness.

Though the disease also occurs in Yemen and some Latin American countries, 99 percent of people infected by onchocerciasis live in Africa, according to WHO. Approximately 1.1 million people live with some degree of irreversible vision loss due to its effects. There is no vaccine to prevent the disease, but WHO recommends treatment with ivermectin, an anti-parasite medicine, once yearly for 10-to-15 years.

3. Addressing eye health to help address poverty in African nations.

The prevalence of blindness in Africa is more than just a problem for the people who experience it — it is a broader social, economic and public health crisis for African countries and the continent as a whole. These countries are affected by an unfortunate cycle of poverty as a consequence of blindness, and of blindness as a consequence of poverty. Blindness among Africa’s youth prevents children from accessing a quality education, reducing their future opportunities to support themselves. Blindness in adults limits people’s ability to work and provide for themselves and their family, leading to hunger and other struggles associated with poverty and need.

Better access to quality healthcare has long been one of the primary steps in addressing the poverty cycle in Africa; this would include proper eye care in the context of prevention and treatment of existing conditions. Groups such as Vision 2020 Australia also believe the best way to address the growing vision crisis in Africa is to support the establishment of hospitals and medical centers, and to provide high-level training for eye doctors and their staff. This infrastructure would increase the availability of ophthalmologic care. In addition, public outreach and education are necessary to inform people of the importance of eye health and how to access care in their local community.