|Press Release WHO/46
6 September 1999
GLOBAL INITIATIVE FOR THE ELIMINATION OF AVOIDABLE BLINDNESS
VISION 2020 LAUNCHED IN THE WESTERN PACIFIC
A New Case of Blindness Every Minute In China, Says WHO
Beijing, China. Vision 2020: the Right to Sight -- a global initiative to eliminate avoidable blindness worldwide by the year 2020 held its regional launch for the countries of the Western Pacific here today. The region is home to an estimated 8 million blind people, or 20% of the world's blind. According to the organizers, up to 80% of this blindness is avoidable. It can be treated or could have been prevented.
Vision 2020 for the Western Pacific Region was launched out of China by the World Health Organization (WHO) in partnership with international nongovernmental development organizations (NDGOs) and in cooperation with the Chinese Ministry of Health.
At a ceremony in Beijing, China's Minister of Health Zhang Wenkang signed the Vision 2020 Global Declaration of Support, issued earlier this year in Geneva by WHO's Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland and signed prior to the ceremony by WHO's Regional Director for the Western Pacific, Dr Shigeru Omi in Manila.
Dr Julian Bilous, Director, Disease Prevention and Control in the WHO Regional Office for the Western Pacific, warned that the burden of blindness in the region was increasing and might well triple by 2020 if additional preventive measures were not taken. On behalf of the WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific, he called upon Governments, international agencies and non-governmental organizations in the Western Pacific to join hands in the regional effort to eliminate avoidable blindness by the year 2020, an effort, they stressed, that could reduce both a major public health problem and a significant drain on national economies.
"Vision 2020 will address the major causes of blindness in the Western Pacific: vitamin A deficiency in children, trauma in adolescents, as well as cataract and trachoma in adults," Dr Belous told reporters at a press conference after the signing ceremony. "Of these, cataract has been recognized as being responsible for over 50% of blindness in the region," he pointed out.
The venue of the regional Vision 2020 launch was not a random choice. "China has the largest number of the blind people in the world around 5 million, or about 18% of the world's blind," explained Dr Bjorn Thylefors, Director of WHO's Geneva-based Disability Prevention Programme. "Against the background of a huge population of some 1267 million people, these figures do not look impressive. However, in absolute terms, the number of blind people in China has already surpassed the population in such countries as Denmark, Finland or Norway," he said.
"An estimated 450 000 Chinese become blind each year, about 400 000 of them because of cataract alone. This means that in China almost every minute of every day a new case of blindness occurs," Dr Thylefors emphasized.
According to the Chinese Ministry of Health, there are a number of factors contributing to the ever-increasing number of blind people in China. They include rapid population ageing, population growth, the lack of adequately trained ophthalmologists and the absence of modern technologies to prevent and treat blindness.
Besides, the current situation could have been much worse if it were not for undeniable achievements of the country in blindness prevention. For example, In 1949, when the Peoples' Republic of China came into existence, the prevalence of trachoma a disease associated with poor housing, sanitation and hygiene -- was as high as 50%, reaching 90% in remote rural areas of China. Today, of the thirty-one provinces in the country, the disease is reported in only eight, while its prevalence there is around 1%. Over the last decade, China has considerably increase the number of sight-saving cataract surgeries.
"We sincerely hope that Vision 2020 will help China address all these issues. For if the present trends are allowed to continue unchanged, by 2020 the number of China's blind is expected to increase fourfold," said Dr Thylefors.
The estimates released by WHO and the Chinese Ministry of Health support this projection. By 2020, the country's population is projected to grow from the current 1267 million to 1500 million people. By the same year, the number of Chinese over 60 years of age is estimated to increase by 90% to some 240 million people. This is expected to result in a substantial increase in age-related diseases, cataract in particular. The main cause of blindness in the country, this condition accounts for approximately 50% of China's blind around 2.5 million people.
China has yet to prepare itself for these changes. Of an estimated 22 000 eye doctors in the country, less than half practice cataract surgery. This means that China has about 1 cataract surgeon per 150 000 -- 200 000 population. Most of the surgically active ophthalmologists are found in urban settings, while more than 70% of the population live in the rural areas. The situation is frequently further complicated by the lack of appropriate equipment and supplies.
The WHO officials stressed that NGDOs have been playing an increasingly important role in blindness prevention worldwide. In developing countries, their network is currently spending an estimated US$80 million per year on blindness prevention and treatment.
China is not an exception. At present, there are around 12 NGDOs collaborating with WHO and the Chinese Ministry of Health and actively supporting eye care delivery in 19 of the 31 provinces of the country. Among them, there are (in alphabetical order): Amity Foundation (China); Asia Foundation for the Prevention of Blindness (Hong Kong, China); Christoffel-Blindenmission (Christian Blind Mission InternationalCBM, Germany); Foresight (Australia); Foundation for Eye Care Himalaya (The Netherlands); The Fred Hollows Foundation (Australia); Helen Keller International (USA); The Lions Club International (USA); ORBIS International (USA); Singapore National Eye Centre (Singapore); Seva Foundation (USA); Tibet Vision Project (USA).
"NGDOs that joined Vision 2020, have agreed to work together with WHO towards the common goal of eliminating avoidable blindness in the world by the year 2020," Mr. Christian Garms, CBM's Executive Director and Chairman of the Vision 2020 Task Force, told the reporters.
"Thanks to the work of WHO, we know what the major causes of blindness are throughout the world. We also know how to deal with them. The question now is to raise enough funds to prevent blindness or restore sight in millions of people, including those in the Western Pacific and, particularly, in China," he said.
Within Vision 2020, the NDGOs working in China will concentrate on developing model projects for delivery of high-volume, good quality and affordable cataract services and eye care at the county hospital level. They will run training programmes for Chinese cataract surgeons and provide assistance to the Chinese Ministry of Health and China Disabled Persons' Federation with appropriate equipment and technologies.
Vision 2020 in the Western Pacific was launched in conjunction with the 6th General Assembly of the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness (IAPB) now in session in Beijing. "We all came a long way to realize that only through broad partnership and collaboration can the global burden of blindness be significantly reduced. And this is what Vision 2020 is all about," said the IAPB outgoing President and veteran in the struggle against blindness Dr Ramachandra Pararajasegaram.
For further information, please contact Mr Igor Rozov, WHO, Geneva. Mobile between 30 August and 8 September 1999 (4179) 244 6007, tel. after 12 September 1999 (4122) 791 2532, Fax (41 22) 791 4858. Email: email@example.com.
All WHO Press Releases, Fact Sheets and Features as well as other information on this subject can be obtained on Internet on the WHO home page http://www.who.ch/