Why poor vision must become a global priority

According to the latest UN data available, the Vision Impact Institute has estimated that there are a staggering 2.5 billion people around the world who have poor vision, and no means of improving it — equal to the combined populations of China, India and Japan.

It’s a problem that affects more of us than any other disability and, when left untreated, hinders our ability to get an education, support our families and to build a better life.

According to a report published by Access Economics, rates of poor vision are costing the global economy an estimated $3 trillion a year — more than the total gross domestic product of Africa. Yet, even this cost is likely to be a conservative estimate.

Looking at the effects of poor vision, a pilot study that took place in rural China last year demonstrated that the impact of vision on children’s educational outcomes significantly outstripped the enormous influence of both parental education and family wealth.

Furthermore, poor vision also has a dramatic effect on the world of work. A recent study published by the Vision Impact Institute showed that 80 per cent of works in textile factories in South India unknowingly required vision correction, which, when provided, lead to a boost of 45 per cent in productivity.

Perhaps most urgently, a report by the World Health Organization has shown that in many African countries road traffic accidents are now responsible for more deaths than malaria. In the next five years, they will be the biggest cause of death across the continent — many of which as a direct result of poor eyesight.

It’s been 700 years since spectacles were invented, and yet billions of people in the developing world still do not have access to them.

Poor vision is not currently a priority on the international agenda — however this needs to change. The reality is that good vision empowers and transforms lives on every level and -in the digital era — I am convinced that the world has the ideas and the technology to crack this challenge and transform access to sight around the world.

In an age where we have found unimaginable cures for some of the most vicious diseases, created cars that can drive themselves, and sparked a new race to put mankind on Mars, it is evident that we are capable of finding a solution to providing equal access to clear vision across the globe.

This will require the support and engagement from leading innovators and technologists, scientists and investors, big business, governments and NGOs, to take on this challenge and rethink the approach to world vision.

There are already a number of exciting innovations in diagnostics emerging, which have the potential to be genuinely transformative.

Just one example is a new technology that allows healthcare workers to take high quality retinal images using a smart phone. The digital images captured are of a high enough resolution to assist in the detection of cataracts, macular degeneration, diabetes and glaucoma.

This innovation is evidence of the enormous potential created when just a small team of eye specialists, public health doctors and product designers come together to solve a single problem.

This week I am excited to be in the Bay Area, gathering some of the greatest minds in order to generate bold news ideas to tackling the problem of poor vision.

The event is part of the Clearly campaign, a global movement launched in April to accelerate a revolution in eye care in order to help the whole world see.

Throughout the year, we are running events in Hong Kong, San Francisco, London, Utah and other global locations, bringing together creative brainpower to crowd-source new solutions to improving access to sight.

In an age of such rapid advance in healthcare, digital and technology, it’s time we start to leverage the potential of our future industries to tackle the global problems that are so deserving our attention, creativity and investment.

NASA hopes to put mankind on Mars by 2035 — and I am determined that — when this happens — the whole world can see it clearly.

James Chen is founder of Clearly, a global campaign that seeks to address the challenge of poor vision, and accelerate a revolution in eye care. www.clearly.world