World Sight Day, observed on the second Thursday of October every year, is an opportunity to advocate for better eye health, for everyone, everywhere.
This year’s theme is “Vision First” to improve the availability of eye-care services in communities.
More than 26 million people in the African Region are visually impaired, including an estimated 5.9 million people with blindness. Globally, 89% of people with vision impairment live in low- and middle-income countries and women account for 55% of moderate to severe cases.
In four out of five people, vision loss is either preventable or curable. However, whilst cost-effective interventions exist, these are not yet widely accessible in countries across the Region due to a shortage of trained health-care workers.
To change this, WHO is working with countries to ensure a greater supply of trained eye health professionals. This year, we have published a policy document to help countries to develop competency-based curricula and strengthen workforce planning and management.
We are also rolling out a primary eye care training manual to ensure eye health is integrated as part of primary health care. So far, expert trainers from Ghana, Kenya and Rwanda have trained more than 10 000 health workers to improve their skills in delivering eye-care services.
It is imperative that evidence informs decision-making and for the first time in 2019, information on the status of eye health in Africa is available on the African Health Observatory based on data shared by 18 Member States.
This data shows progress in reducing ophthalmological complications in measles and avoidable blindness caused by neglected tropical diseases like trachoma and onchocerciasis.
In 2018, Ghana became the first country in the Region to eliminate trachoma and Eritrea is on the verge of eliminating this blinding disease. Through health promotion and mass drug administration, countries are also striving to achieve the goal of regional elimination of onchocerciasis by 2025.
At the same time, chronic age-related eye conditions, such as cataract, glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy are on the rise, along with childhood refractive error.
These emerging issues require a system-based response. WHO is working with countries to prevent and treat diabetic retinopathy, using an assessment tool to ensure referral pathways are in place for diabetic patients to ophthalmology services. Mauritania and Senegal have improved their referral systems based on findings using the tool.
We also need to make the most of innovations in health care. For example, in Benin, artificial intelligence is being used to identify early warning signs of diabetic retinopathy.
Finally, through awareness raising and early intervention, we can reduce the burden of eye diseases in children and WHO is also exploring with countries to integrate eye health in school health programming.
Promising progress is underway to improve eye health in Africa. To build on the gains made and address emerging challenges, I urge governments, with the support of partners, to intensify actions to eliminate preventable blindness and ensure eye care is integrated in primary health care services.
Together, we can ensure better sight for all people as part of our collective efforts to achieve universal health coverage.