SPARKS, Nevada — As of 2020, more than 3.4 million children were blind worldwide from disease or uncorrected vision. Only a quarter of those children live outside of the poorest regions of Africa and Asia. Although many eye diseases cannot be cured, childhood blindness often has treatable options when caught in time. With access to proper eye care, many already afflicted children can recover, giving them a better chance at leading successful, fulfilling lives.
Vitamin Deficiencies and Eyesight
The Borgen Project spoke with Dr. Becky Humphreys, a pediatric optometrist in Sparks, Nevada. She works with children who can’t see whether they need glasses or have a more serious underlying issue. She’s been practicing optometry for 20 years, specializing in visual therapies and visual rehabilitation that help her patients, many of whom are young children, gain their sight back.
When asked, Dr. Becky explained that some types of blindness can be prevented through different measures. For example, xerophthalmia causes abnormal dryness on the conjunctiva and cornea, which make up the front of the eye. It is associated with vitamin A deficiency, as are many optical issues. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), widespread vitamin A deficiencies also accompany measles outbreaks. When countries implement measles vaccine programs, they also see a decrease in preventable eye-health complications.
The largest worldwide outbreak of measles since 2006 took place in 2019. There were more than 350,000 cases confirmed across 180 countries. The outbreak hit Brazil the hardest. By September 2019, it reported more than 4,500 cases. Coincidentally, a study published in 2019 found that high levels of pregnant women in Brazil had anemia and gestational night blindness linked to vitamin A deficiencies.
Water and Eyesight
Clean water and eye care are closely linked. Dr. Becky stated that access to clean water is “the greatest thing globally we could do for eyes.” With clean water, fewer bacteria exist to infect the eyes. Clean water also grows more nutritious foods that provide the consumer with vitamins that contribute to eye health. As such, Dr. Becky noted that many children in lower socioeconomic areas without access to water are at higher risk of contracting trachoma, an eye disease that causes irreversible blindness. Trachoma-induced childhood blindness is preventable, but it is still the number one cause of infectious blindness globally.
In Nigeria, 73.5% of the population lack access to improved water resources. As such, Nigerian children younger than five years old are at a high risk of death from a lack of clean water. Trachoma, unsurprisingly, remains pervasive in Nigeria as well. In 1998, the WHO launched a program to help eradicate the disease and, although Nigeria set many goals to eliminate the disease by 2020, it remains a significant cause of disability in the sub-Saharan country.
When an individual has an uncorrected refractive error, that means they need glasses but do not wear them. When a child does not receive vision treatment in a timely manner, consequences may arise. If a child cannot see their work up-close at school due to uncorrected hyperopia, or farsightedness, they often avoid doing the school work and can develop truancy behavior. According to Dr. Becky, more than half of the children put in juvenile delinquency programs need glasses.
If a child develops amblyopia, a condition where vision doesn’t develop properly in one or both eyes, over time the brain chooses to ignore images. In the short term, Dr. Becky has seen this affect a child’s education; in the long term, it doesn’t allow for the individual to choose certain careers where sight is important.
Dr. Becky stated that while doing eye care missions, the happiest and saddest experience is providing glasses to an adult who has lived with an uncorrected refractive error their whole life. “It is emotional,” she said, “to see them experience sight for the first time, but also heartbreaking to acknowledge they could have seen much better at an earlier age if they had the resources.”
When a student struggles with preventable childhood blindness, their ability to focus on schoolwork suffers. Partially as a result, many children still suffer from learning poverty where they cannot understand a simple text. In fact, up to 80% of children are illiterate in developing countries. If a child cannot read by the age of 10, it is likely they also cannot perform in other areas, such as math and science. If a child cannot perform well, their future is in jeopardy and their ability to escape their impoverished state is almost impossible.
Optometry Giving Sight
A professional can easily correct childhood blindness if the root of the cause stems from the child needing glasses. Fortunately, a lack of glasses is the second largest cause of blindness. It takes away job and educational opportunities and significantly lowers the individual’s quality of life. To remedy this issue, Dr. Becky participates in the World Sight Day Program through the global philanthropy organization Optometry Giving Sight. Its vision is to have, “a world with universal access to eye care services and solutions for those in need.” Optometry Giving Sight has helped cure childhood blindness across the world by providing low-cost exams, equipment and training to local individuals.
It is easy to see how combating preventable and curable blindness, especially childhood blindness, can also positively affect the overall health of the population. Whether inflicted by a vitamin deficiency or lack of access to clean water, a person’s eye health mimics their need for support regarding their general health and well-being. If a child cannot see well to perform schoolwork, they are less likely to successfully learn how to read. As a result, if they don’t get glasses at an early age, their careers may suffer.
Preventing childhood blindness gives back more than just sight — quality eye care shapes a child’s life. While individuals like Dr. Becky Humphreys are addressing and eradicating childhood blindness, the world needs a more coordinated effort to help give children a better chance at obtaining clear vision, and in turn, a clear future.
– Tawney Smith