Fact Sheet N 146
BLINDNESS AND VISUAL DISABILITY
Part V of VII: Seeing Ahead - Projections Into the Next Century
Worldwide, there are close to 150 million people with significant visual disability of whom almost 38 million are blind. Many of the major avoidable (preventable and treatable) and unavoidable causes of blindness are ageing-related. This means that the older a person is, the greater the chance of developing such conditions.
* These diseases have come to the forefront as the number of people affected by trachoma (about 6 million blind), xerophthalmia (blindness due to vitamin A deficiency) and "river blindness" (onchocerciasis) have been gradually reduced. However, the latter conditions still remain important causes of preventable blindness in some regions of the world. Where they have been endemic in the past, blindness and visual impairment may persist or even increase with ageing, as in trachoma-related blindness.
* *The number of people who become blind each year is estimated to be in the region of 7 million. Over 70% of these people receive treatment and their vision is restored. Thus, the number of blind persons worldwide is currently increasing by up to 2 million per year. Eighty percent of these new cases are ageing-related.
* If no additional resources become available, it is projected that, by the year
2020, there will be about 54 million blind people aged 60 and over living in the
world, 50 million of them in developing countries. It follows that population
ageing presents a major challenge to eye health care providers. This is true globally, but
particularly important in the middle and low income countries where demographic changes
are likely to outstrip economic progress.
* Better education and awareness among communities would break down some of the current barriers to greater utilization of existing services. Available and affordable technologies that provide better quality of eye care will further induce more patients to seek treatment and often at an earlier stage.
* Types of treatment such as day surgery, which reduces costs and minimises patient inconvenience, are also likely to enhance demand, particularly for cataract surgical services.
* Finally, due to rapid urbanization, 60% of the populations in developing
countries is expected to live in cities or large towns by the year 2020. This will
increase the demand for urban-based services. However, in rural areas, a marginalised
elderly population may still remain with their needs unmet.
* Access to eye care for these populations could be ensured through appropriate
technological development that renders such care affordable. Some of these cost-effective
technologies have already been identified and are currently being applied. The use of
low-cost intra ocular lenses (IOL) in cataract surgery is one such example. Because
of the transfer of technology to developing countries, the IOL cost has now decreased some
thirty fold. Greater efforts will be made to develop and evaluate new low-cost preventive
and curative options.
By 2020, a global challenge will be to provide full coverage and improved quality of services for the prevention of blindness and the alleviation of low vision.
Such a challenge calls for a global response from a wide constituency - governments that are convinced that there is much to be gained from investment in eye health, professionals who are conscious of their societal responsibility, as well as nongovernmental organizations and the private sector who are committed to meet this challenge.
It is an opportunity for bilateral, multilateral and intergovernmental organizations and institutions to contribute to development through improved health, enhanced wellbeing and economic productivity. To make it happen, informed individuals and their communities need to become active and committed partners in the global response.
For further information, please contact Health Communications and Public Relations, WHO, Geneva (41 22) 791 2532/2584. Fax (41 22) 791 4858.
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