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VAO calls for improved access to eye care

The charity asked attendees at an event to commit to supporting universal eye health coverage

Chipo Mweemba

Vision Aid Overseas (VAO) issued a call to action on Tuesday evening (20 March) to improve access to affordable eye care in developing countries.

Hosting an event at Parliament, the international eye care charity highlighted that there is an urgent need to increase resources, such as eye examinations and spectacles.

Welcoming guests to the event, the MP for Crawley, Henry Smith, said that providing corrective vision and eye tests in rural areas can make a huge difference to the lives of people in developing countries.

Attendees were called on to commit to supporting universal eye health coverage by 2020, by allocating resources and forming partnerships to enable change.

A global problem

Speaking at the event, consultant ophthalmic surgeon at the Vision Loss Expert Group, Professor Rupert Bourne, told attendees that access to eye care is “a global problem that needs addressing.”

He highlighted that in children aged five–15, between 50–88% are living with an uncorrected refractive error. Professor Bourne added that it’s a problem not exclusive to developing countries, with 37% of children in the US having refractive error and 66% of those children are living with it uncorrected. 

CEO of VAO, Nicola Chevis, spoke about examples of the charity’s work to improve access to eye care in developing countries.

“We are now working with both the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education in Zambia and other stakeholders to develop and pilot a national child screening programme, which will enable all children to be screened for eye care,” she explained.  

“Children who can’t see properly can’t learn effectively and are far more likely to drop out of school, particularly if they are girls,” Ms Chevis added. 

VAO has established vision centres and is building an eye health workforce in countries such as Zambia, Sierra Leone and Ethiopia.

Speaking about the vision centre in Ethiopia, Ms Chevis said: “Department for International Development-funded research in 2016 showed that after receiving treatment in the form of minor surgery or the provision of glasses, 78% of adults surveyed reported an improvement in their quality of life and an increase in household income after the treatment.”

Driving awareness

Ms Chevis then welcomed optometrist Chipo Mweemba (pictured), a graduate in optometry at the Chainama College of Health Sciences in Lusaka, Zambia. 

Mr Mweemba told attendees that five years ago there were only two Zambian optometrists practising in the country. Since VAO supported the college’s introduction of the optometry programme in 2013, 52 optometrists have graduated from the course. 

“It can take just hours to change someone’s life who is living in a very remote area of Zambia,” he shared. 

“I have been privileged to see this happen first-hand; when someone walks into the clinic with all hope gone and they walk out smiling with their life restored simply because they can see clearly. That is what a pair of specs prescribed by a professional, bought at an affordable price can do,” Mr Mweemba said. 
 
Closing the event, CEO of the Brien Holden Vision Institute, Professor Kevin Naidoo, told attendees about the Our Children’s Vision campaign, which is supported by over 70 organisations. 

He said: “We’ve targeted to reach 50 million children by the year 2020. The numbers are really to govern support and get people involved but it goes beyond just the numbers. It’s about creating powerful partnerships, driving awareness of child eye health, particularly uncorrected refractive error, utilising local knowledge, advocating for policy change, public health education and health promotion.”

He called on attendees to increase access to eye care in developing and developed countries, and emphasised the need for policy change, education and inclusiveness.