10/07/2013 03:58 pm ET Updated Dec 07, 2013

Seeing a Brighter Future for the World's Poor

Imagine a world without sight. A child never seeing his or her mother's face clearly. Never seeing the sunset. Having to constantly rely on others to do simple, everyday tasks. This is the reality for 285 million people around the world who are visually impaired. And it is estimated that 90% of them live in the developing world, where poverty and limited access to health care only exacerbate the issue.

The good news is that approximately 80% of all visual impairment can be avoided or cured with access to quality eye care. However, in most developing countries, access to this care is extremely limited, if present at all.

The economic consequences and social ramifications of visual impairment in the developing world are astounding. It is difficult for visually impaired people to work, and the unemployment rate among the blind has been estimated to be as high as 90%. Visually impaired people also can require assistance with everyday tasks, which often means a family member must stop working or a child must stay out of school to take care of someone who is blind.

As president and CEO of ORBIS, a nonprofit organization that works in developing countries to prevent and treat blindness, I have unfortunately seen firsthand the reality of these statistics. I have traveled to almost every country where ORBIS has long-term work, and it is clear that poverty and blindness are intimately linked. Impoverished people are more likely to become blind due to the lack of access to health care, proper sanitation, clean water and adequate nutrition. They are more susceptible to eye infections and diseases, and many lack awareness and education about eye health.

Earlier this year I traveled to Nepal, where I witnessed some of the consequences of inadequate care. While visiting one of our partner hospitals, I met a family of sharecroppers with six children, several of whom were born with cataracts, a clouding of the eye's normally transparent lens. Cataract is the leading cause of blindness worldwide. Their now 20-year-old son, Rajendra, had been diagnosed with an eye condition as an infant, but the family did not initially seek treatment due to a lack of resources. Years later, as his condition worsened, Rajendra was told he needed surgery to preserve his remaining vision, but the family was nervous and did not return for treatment. His vision has since deteriorated to an irreversible state and cannot be restored, leaving him permanently blind.

Blindness only exacerbates poverty, given the high cost of treatment and limited opportunities for employment, thereby putting further strain on families like Rajendra's. In developing countries, impaired vision can create numerous challenges that we don't face here in more developed countries.

However, through our work at ORBIS, I have also seen the profound impact that access to quality eye care can have on individuals, families and communities. A great example is cataract. The World Health Organization recognizes that cataract surgery is one of the most cost-effective treatments in developing countries. A study in Kenya, Bangladesh and the Philippines, sponsored by ORBIS and partners, found that people who received cataract surgery not only had improved vision, but also had better general health, spent more time on productive activities and showed a significant increase in per capita household expenditure following surgery. Another study found that those who receive surgery can increase economic productivity by up to 1,500% of the cost of surgery during the first post-operative year alone. You can't find a better return on investment than that.

Again recalling my recent visit with Rajendra's family in Nepal, his younger sister, Sharmila, age 17, and brother Naveen, age 10, also began experiencing problems with their vision. After hearing a radio announcement about a community eye screening, Sharmila convinced her parents to take them to seek examination and treatment. Through ORBIS and our partners in Nepal, Sharmila and Naveen both had successful surgeries, and their vision has been restored. They are now able to return to school and will no longer be teased by their classmates for not being able to see. The stark contrast between the siblings, not only in their vision, but also the future opportunities each will have, brought home for me how life-changing good vision really is - something so many of us here in the U.S. take for granted.

In stories like this, it is clear that progress to improve the vicious cycle of poverty rests on advances in health care. That is why we at ORBIS are committed to investing in resources to provide enduring capabilities locally. Our work focuses on preventing and treating blindness through hands-on training of local eye care professionals and strengthening local hospitals and institutions' long-term abilities to provide ongoing care.

Continued collaboration is key to making progress to reverse the impact of impaired vision. This World Sight Day, on October 10, I urge you to reflect on the value of sight and learn how you can help make a difference in the fight against avoidable blindness.

To learn more about ORBIS and World Sight Day, click here.


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