Of the 45 million people worldwide who are blind, around 1.4 million are children under 16. The vast majority of childhood blindness happens before the age of five - a period when 75 per cent of learning is through sight.
What is childhood blindness?
Blindness is more common in poor countries than in rich ones. Children in low-income countries such as Sierra Leone are four times more likely to be blind than those born in high-income ones such as the UK. The main cause - corneal scarring - is rooted in poor diet (lack of Vitamin A) and inadequate sanitation. Sightsavers is working to address both.
Why is childhood blindness a priority?
There are several reasons why Sightsavers believes eliminating childhood blindness is a priority:
- there are an estimated 500,000 new cases each year of childhood blindness - roughly one per minute
- blindness in children is often preventable if communities and parents become aware of the causes
- without early intervention for cataract blindness children may go blind permanently
- blinding conditions increase child mortality - up to 50% of children who become blind die within two years
- 90% of children who are blind don't go to school
- eliminating childhood blindness will lead to a greater reduction in the number of 'blind years' experienced by adults.
Causes of childhood blindness
Childhood blindness has many causes. In poor countries the main ones are corneal scarring and cataract. If not treated in childhood, trachoma and river blindness may affect sight in later life. Some blindness is hereditary.
Global figures show:
- roughly 57 per cent of childhood blindness is unavoidable
- 28 per cent is preventable
- 15 per cent is treatable
The proportion of children suffering non-preventable blindness in wealthy and poor countries is comparable, but preventable blindness is much more prevalent in the developing world.
The main causes:
- corneal scarring (the drying out and scarring of the outer eye because of vitamin A deficiency) is the most common cause of childhood blindness. It has caused irreversible sight loss for around 230,000 children.
- cataract (the clouding of the eye's lens) causes an estimated 39 per cent of all childhood blindness. It affects around 200,000 children worldwide.
- trachoma is a repeated infection, causing scarring of the upper eyelid, turning it inwards and making the eyelashes scratch the eye and cause blindness. Although this tends to blinds adults, after repeated infections, trachoma is often first suffered in childhood.
- river blindness (caused by a parasitic worm and spread by flies) rarely blinds before the age of 15, but must be prevented by taking Mectizan® to avoid blindness in later life.
Vitamin A Deficiency
To celebrate World Sight Day on 12th October, 2006, celebrity chefs such as Gordon Ramsay helped us to raise awareness of avoidable blindness.
The chefs thought up some unique recipes rich in vitamin A - a vital ingredient for healthy eyes and a healthy immune system - to raise awareness of the fact that thousands of children in the poorest countries in the world are going blind due to lack of the vitamin.
Vitamin A can be found in foods such as carrots, sweet potatoes, liver, fish, spinach, butternut squash and palm oil.
Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay said: "We take foods high in vitamin A pretty much for granted here in the UK and I was shocked to learn that huge numbers of children were blinded by a lack of it around the world.
"Sightsavers is trying to eliminate all types of avoidable blindness, including blindness caused by vitamin A deficiency, by facilitating the distribution of vitamin A capsules and raising health and nutrition awareness in affected communities. Around the world today no child should lose their sight unnecessarily."
Antony Worrall Thompson added: "Over 100 million children are affected by vitamin A deficiency, it is one of the major causes of childhood blindness in poor communities. Children who are blind are at a greater risk of social exclusion, missing out on an education and spiraling further into poverty. However, there is some room for optimism. If the right steps are taken, vitamin A deficiency can be eliminated by 2010."
Sightsavers works with local organisations in over 30 countries across Africa, Asia and the Caribbean to prevent and cure blindness and to ensure that people who are blind enjoy equal rights and opportunities. With local partners, we are work to facilitate the distribution of vitamin A capsules and provide health and nutrition training.
Our childhood blindness work
Sightsavers is working to reduce the incidence and impact of corneal scarring (the drying and scarring of the outer eye because of vitamin A deficiency) and cataract (the clouding of the eye's lens) - the two main causes of childhood blindness. We also work to prevent and treat trachoma and river blindness - conditions that must be tackled in childhood to prevent blindness later in life.
We are campaigning internationally to make sure children who are blind or with low vision have the chance of an education, and are not excluded from society.
Working with local partners Sightsavers is actively taking the following steps to help eradicate childhood blindness
- training primary health-care workers to identify and refer cataract-affected children for treatment
- training paediatric teams to run specialist eye clinics
- providing follow-up care and glasses for children who have undergone cataract surgery
- helping facilitate the distribution of vitamin A capsules to boost deficiency - the main cause of corneal scarring
- raising health and nutrition awareness
- facilitating immunisation against vitamin A-depleting illnesses such as measles through logistical support
Exclusion from education
- encouraging mainstream schools to include children who are blind
- promoting advocacy to ensure that governments of developing countries do not allow blind children to be discriminated against, such as by being excluded from education.