The month of May marks Healthy Vision Month in America, a valuable and often forgotten opportunity to recognize the importance of our sight. This drive for awareness was started 14 years ago in response to America’s growing population of people with declining vision. Though it’s been a valuable step in the right direction, cases of preventable blindness and visual impairment continue to increase, sounding the alarm for more to be done. I see these cases daily in my practice and I hope that, with a concerted effort from the eye care community, we can make a change for the better.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) released their report, “Making Eye Health a Population Health Imperative: Vision for Tomorrow,” last September, which showed that 61 million Americans are at-risk for severe vision loss, but that only half of them went to an eye doctor in the past 12 months.
Worse, it showed that cases of preventable blindness and visual impairment are expected to double by 2050—a rate by which one American will be experiencing partial or complete loss of sight every four minutes.
Due to the deteriorating landscape of vision in the U.S., NASEM declared eye health a public health imperative and called for increased focus on the early detection and treatment of diseases like glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy, and age-related macular degeneration.
The problem with many of these diseases is that noticeable deterioration to vision can be a late manifestation. In essence, they are often ‘silent’ until it is too late to reverse the damaging vision loss that has occurred. Several of the diseases we’re confronting don’t even have signs like redness or pain from the start. When patients come to me and my eye care colleagues for evaluation of their blurred vision, it is not uncommon to have to inform them that the effects they are experiencing are sadly irreversible.
I see patients like this all too often; patients who had they come in sooner to address their ‘worsening vision’, they likely could have benefited from potentially vision-saving therapies. A 62-year-old gentleman came to me once because he began to lose vision in one eye. He had been a boxer earlier in life and said he had never experienced vision problems before, despite suffering repeated blunt force trauma to the head and eye. By the time he visited me for a routine appointment, he already had end-stage advanced glaucoma in the one eye and there was no chance to save his sight. Fortunately, vision-threatening glaucoma in the second eye was not as far advanced; thus, proper therapies for the traumatic glaucoma were able to be instituted to salvage the very necessary vision out of his only seeing eye.
Blindness burdens us all
Vision is the most relied-upon of all the senses. It is crucial to educational and professional advancement, and personal independence and mobility. It is associated with overall social, economic, cultural, health, and environmental conditions in the US.
Approximately 8.2 million Americans with vision loss live near or below the poverty level. One in every 20 preschool children has an eye problem that, if left uncorrected, can lead to permanent vision loss and compounding learning setbacks.
At this rate, the vision health community will not have the manpower to handle the increased need. If nothing changes, the growth in demand for vision treatment will begin presenting “substantial manpower challenges” around 2020, and outweigh the industry’s supply between 2025 and 2030. NASEM identified vision educational awareness and access to proper professional medical care as top obstacles to reversing these trends.
We can fight this
Most Americans simply don’t realize how delicate coming together to prevent vision loss is, and just how much we need to be taking care of the gift of sight. For so many, all it would take is regular checkups with an eye doctor to avoid losing vision or going completely blind. This means we have a fighting chance.
In their report, NASEM outlined recommendations to save America’s sight, including an urgent request for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to make a national call-to-action to make preventable blindness and vision impairment a thing of the past by 2030. Equally, it properly called on various and eye health industry stakeholders, even those with competing market interests, to pursue improved “eye and health equity in the United States.”
Every day in my office, my colleagues and I are working diligently to fight against preventable vision loss. In that spirit, I’m proud to have joined with Allergan’s ‘See America’, where we’ve begun giving free regional eye screenings with the nonprofit Prevent Blindness and raising nationwide awareness of threats to vision across the U.S.
We will only conquer preventable blindness and vision loss if we all come together. We need to start thinking at an activist, scientific, and policy level—federal, state and local levels—to raise the mass awareness necessary for getting people to see their eye doctors for regular comprehensive eye exams.
It is simply unacceptable for a country with so much promise to be burdened by a health crisis that could and should be a thing of the past. I want to see an America where preventable vision loss is not an inhibitor of success or quality of life regardless of circumstance.
As a leader in the ophthalmology field, I know that I am not alone in finding it a broader responsibility to help raise awareness and improve access to professional eye care. If you are like-minded and can help, know that See America is just one way to get involved. Activists at organizations like the SEVA Foundation, Vision 20/20, Prevent Blindness, and American Foundation for the Blind are all taking roles in this fight, to name only a few.
This National Healthy Vision Month, America needs your help in the fight against preventable blindness more than ever. Together, let’s fight until the fight has been won.