Eye Health A Neglected Public Health Issue In Africa

By Michael Gwarisa

Sightsavers have warned that the continued neglect of Eye Care as a public health issue on the African continent was derailing efforts to respond eye-related diseases, resulting in more people developing blindness and irreversible eye complications.

This comes amidst indications that globally, a billion people have a visual impairment that could have been prevented or could still be treated.

Speaking in an interview with HeathTimes in Zambia recently, Francis Kalusa,  Sightasavers Program Manager Zambia said Eye Care was lagging behind other diseases in terms of attention.

So the situation of Eye Health in Africa is a situation where we are still in the development stages because if you look at the number of people that are going blind, we’ve got a significant number of people that are going blind and most of these people are going from eye conditions that can easily be prevented, that can easily be cured just using a simple intervention,” said Kalusa.

He added that most people on the continent were struggling to access eye care services owing to a myriad of factors ranging from human resources shortages, and lack of information among other factors.

“We look at the aspect where several people cannot access some of these services. We find that in terms of the dynamics in Africa, it’s almost the same or similar kind of pattern. I find that we’ve got inadequate human resources for eye health. I can tell you that the recommendation by the World Health Organisation (WHO) is that there should be one ophthalmologist to cover at least a million population. But you find that in most of African countries in terms of HR, there’s only maybe one ophthalmologist which is  not enough because we need at least a ratio of four ophthalmologists to cover at least a population of one million.”

He added that several people in Africa do not access eye care services hence the high prevalence of blindness on the continent. The prevalence of blindness in Zambia was estimated to be 2% in 2022 giving an estimate of 389,200 blind people, within a population of 19,460,000. Over 80% of these cases could have been avoided if adequate health promotion and preventive and curative measures had been in place.

“When it comes to most of the policies, Eye Care is not supported but if you look at the national level policies towards supporting other conditions such as malaria, TB and all these other conditions, there is much attention there. There is so little focus in terms of eye care,” added Kalusa.

Access is one of the biggest barriers that most African countries face as most of the eye 
health facilities are more concentrated in the urban settings.

“We’ve got very few that are based in the rural areas. So we find that even the number of people that are going blind, 50% of the people that are blind are women in most African countries. It is very interesting to note that when it comes to persons with disabilities, we find that almost three times are less likely to access the services. Why? Because of some of the barriers that I could have mentioned above.

He also said women bear the biggest brunt I terms of Trachoma infection. This is largely due to the fact that women as care givers interact the most with children who in most cases are the hardest hit population group. The major causes of blindness include cataracts, glaucoma, trachoma, refractive errors, corneal opacity and diabetic eye diseases, of which 50% is due to cataracts.

Meanwhile, Sightsavers is riding on a number of partnerships in order to boost eye health uptake on the continent. These include ministries of health and other partners supporting Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs).

Without urgent improvement to eye health services worldwide, 61 million people could be blind by 2050 and achieving ‘universal health coverage’, ensuring everyone has access to health services, will fail.

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