Addenbrooke’s eye specialist helps inform WHO’s first report into vision

18 October 2019
An Addenbrooke’s eye specialist who helped inform the first World Health Organization (WHO) vision report said he was surprised at figures showing more than one billion people are still living with treatable conditions despite huge developments in eye care globally

The WHO report, launched this month (October 2019), shows at least 2.2 billion people globally are visually impaired or blind. Of these, more than one billion people are visually impaired because they do not get the care they need for conditions like short or far sightedness, glaucoma and cataracts.

This figure was provided by the Vision Loss Expert Group, headed by Prof Rupert Bourne, Consultant Ophthalmic Surgeon, Glaucoma Service Lead at Addenbrooke’s and Director of Cambridge Eye Research Centre.

Prof Bourne said: “I was surprised by the figures we submitted because although there are some big improvements in eye care around the world we are still facing major problems.”

These include an increase in the number of people who are blind as a result of cataracts – despite improvements to cataract surgery – and a rise in diseases such as glaucoma and macular degeneration.

Prof Bourne believes the findings are largely linked to the world’s increasingly aging population, but says there are also strong links to deprivation and diet.

For example diabetic retinopathy – which appears in people with diabetes - has increased due to changes to people’s dietary habits and is especially evident among young adults in the Caribbean and South Asia.

Prof Bourne added “Unless we understand what is going on at a population level we will never have a real understanding of what we are seeing on a day-to-day basis in the clinic.

“For example, we know that deprivation has a significant impact on eye health. By understanding the burden of eye disease globally we are able to shine a light on the public health messages we need to put out there relating to visual impairment and blindness at a local level.”

The global report also shows:

  • The burden of eye conditions and vision impairment is not borne equally; it is often far greater in people living in rural areas, those with low incomes, women, older people, people with disabilities, ethnic minorities and indigenous populations.
  • Low and middle income regions of western and eastern sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia have rates of blindness that are eight times higher than in all high income countries
  • The combination of a growing and aging population will significantly increase the total number of people with eye conditions and vision impairment, as prevalence increases with age.

To address this it says strong integration of eye care is needed within national health services, including at primary health care level, to ensure that the eye care needs of more people are addressed, including through prevention, early detection, treatment and rehabilitation, the report found.