Avoidable blindness on the rise in Middle East, South Asia

Australian nonprofit opens Dubai office in push to prevent and treat eye problems in the region’s poorest countries

The number of people suffering from preventable blindness in the Middle East and South Asia is rising, driven by population growth, ageing, and diabetes-linked eye problems, the chair of an Australian nonprofit warned Monday.

Across the region, 15 million people are blind, with four out of five of these cases preventable or treatable. But poverty, coupled with a scarcity of specialist eye health practitioners in low-income countries, means most go untreated, said John Brumby, chair of the Fred Hollows Foundation (FHF), which seeks to eliminate avoidable blindness.

“The burden is increasing, and that’s despite the work we and other international agencies are doing,” he said at an event to mark the opening of the foundation’s Dubai office. “The challenge for us is that we need to be working at two or three times the scale we are to knock that number down.”

Globally, some 253 million people are blind or vision impaired, and for 80 per cent of them, this could be prevented or cured with access to the right treatment. The vast majority live in low and middle-income countries, according to the World Health Organisation, which has spearheaded a call for a 25 per cent reduction in avoidable vision impairment by 2019.

Loss of sight can impede a person’s access to education, prevent them from securing a job, and tip whole families into poverty, Brumby said.

“In terms of public health [tackling avoidable blindness] is one of the most cost-effective interventions available,” he said, noting the price per surgery can be as little as $20. “For every dollar invested, you generate four dollars in economic benefits, so there’s a clear business case.”

“We have a fundamental belief in the right to healthcare, whether you are rich or poor”FHF operates globally to perform sight-saving surgeries, distribute medical equipment and drugs, and train health and community workers in developing nations to screen for, diagnose and treat common eye problems.

To date, it has restored the sight of more than 2 million people, and is increasingly focused on strengthening health services in the 25 countries where it works.

“We have a fundamental belief in the right to healthcare, whether you are rich or poor,” said Brumby. “By teaching, and through building this infrastructure, we ensure communities can sustain these screening programmes well into the future.”

The launch of the Dubai office is part of a wider push to raise FHF’s global profile, broaden its donor base outside Australia, and expand its regional operations.

In 2018 it plans to screen more than 1 million people in the Middle East and South Asia, carry out more than 70,000 cataract surgeries, and train more than 11,000 health and community workers.

This work will likely take in India, which is home to almost a quarter of the world’s blind people, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Palestine, among other countries, and the foundation is keen to tie up with local nonprofits.

“This region is a top priority for us,” said Brumby. “We’ve seen a huge effort in the last 10 to 20 years, but it isn’t enough. We need to see more partnerships, more donors and more effort on the ground to drag the global burden of avoidable blindness down.”

In October, research published in The Lancet found that rates of avoidable blindness have plateaued after decades of decline, as an ageing population stymies global efforts. The study warned of a potential three-fold increase in blindness by 2050, with developing nations in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa likely to be the worst affected.