Mars mission means we have to work fast

Humankind’s understanding of Mars has taken another big step forward last week with the landing of a robot on Mars’ surface that will take pictures and study the deep interior of the red planet.

In setting out a vision for my campaign to help the world see clearly, I have repeatedly said that we should achieve the goal of vision for everyone by the time a human steps on Mars.

NASA’s ambition is to get a human on Mars by the 2030s, but big advances like last week’s may bring that day forward.

So that means that Clearly, and its friends in other organisations who want to help the 2.5 billion people lacking access to glasses, must up our game even further.

We have made huge strides this year, for example with Commonwealth leaders being the first to commit to action to achieve ‘quality eye care for all’ at their meeting in London, and the creation of the Friends of Vision Group at the UN. But we have so much more still to do.

We must treat our campaign for good vision across the world as a race against time. Let’s get to our destination before NASA get to theirs.

As you read this the Mars robot is sitting on a vast, flat plain known as Elysium Planitia, close to the Red Planet’s equator. Before landing, NASA had called it the ‘biggest parking lot on Mars

From there, it will help scientists to gain a better picture of the rocks under Mars’ surface as they learn more about its seismic activity and its natural history. The probe’s difficult descent through the planet’s atmosphere before landing safely has reminded NASA and its Mars mission collaborators that a successful mission to Mars is never assured.

Unlike the Mars mission, the odds for reaching our goal on delivering quality eye care for all by 2030 are in our hands. Spaceflight missions require huge commitments from global collaborators in every sector. The same is true of the mission to deliver quality eye care for the 2.5 billion people that need it and have no access to it — everyone has a part to play.

Commonwealth leaders made history in pledging to take action on poor vision for the first time on the international stage. We must now hold the leaders to account, ensuring that they deliver on this promise. The publication of the World Health Organisation’s ‘World Report on Vision’ which will set out practical steps to help countries achieve this, must be published without delay.

There is now a working group in the UN dedicated to tackling uncorrected poor vision, with the UN Friends of Vision group launching on World Sight day in October this year. We need more countries to join, and steps taken, potentially leading to a UN General Assembly Resolution on tackling poor vision.

I was delighted that President Xi of China showed leadership this year in recognising the scale of the myopia problem, with the Chinese Government’s five-year plan for providing ‘universal eye medical care for everyone and the gradual elimination of avoidable blindness and visual impairment’ a brilliant example of the need for a concerted effort to eliminate poor vision. It will demonstrate that tackling poor vision is a sound economic decision, and one which has the potential to transform millions of people’s lives for the better.

Governments and leaders need to step up. But bilateral and multilateral donors must also release funds to help countries implement these practical steps and to help nations in the worst-affected regions — including sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia — to deliver universal eye care.

The retail cost of glasses, in many countries, is far higher than the manufacturing cost, owing to additional import tariffs on luxury goods. We need action to bring down these duties and the regulations that add to the costs of getting glasses to those who need them.

There must be a step change in cultural attitudes towards wearing glasses. Nationwide campaigns which encourage people to wear and love their glasses should be encouraged.

We need entrepreneurs to develop through innovative technology new ways to bring down barriers to diagnosis, distribution and production.

Businesses can provide vital support in our mission to deliver quality eye care for all. Our trial this year in India proved that giving glasses to tea-workers raises productivity by over 21 per cent — a greater increase than any other similar trial in the health literature. It shows that offering work-based sight tests is a win-win for business, and we want more employers across the globe to introduce eye care for their employees.

The India trial showed how important research is, and we need more of it. Clearly is planning new research to demonstrate the links between good vision and improving education, increasing labour participation and reducing traffic accidents.

Maybe prophetically, NASA named its new probe InSight. After the progress we have made this year, moving poor vision gradually up the world’s agenda, let us hope that we will soon able to say that a solution to an ancient problem is in sight.