Article Date: 12/1/2008

Optometry's Challenges in Global Vision

Optometry's Challenges in Global Vision

Sustainable vision care worldwide requires sustainable funding.

VICTOR CONNORS, O.D. Middleton, Wisc.


More than 300 million people worldwide are blind or vision impaired simply because they haven't had an eye exam and a pair of glasses. Imagine a day without your glasses — you might not be able to drive to work, watch a movie or see your child play soccer. In the developing world, where more than 90% of blindness occurs, life without sight can be a death sentence. Those who are "blind," even if it's just due to refractive error, cannot earn an income for supporting themselves or their families — leading to poverty, additional health problems, starvation and an early death.

Besides the sheer magnitude of unnecessary blindness due to refractive error, charitable organizations, such as Optometry Giving Sight (OGS), also face the following challenges:

1. Securing funding sources in challenging global economy;

2. ensuring sustainability of all projects so that vision care isn't just short-term, but permanent;

3. building partnerships with like-minded organizations — a collaborative approach around the world making best use of organizational expertise and location to ensure the problem is solved efficiently and economically;

4. working with national and local governments to get their buy-in and support. This is especially challenging considering political environments in the developing world.

For optometrists, these challenges hit close to home. Correcting refractive errors and providing primary eye care are our bread and butter. In today's troubled global economy, how can we give sight to 300 million people who are less fortunate? How can we, as eyecare professionals, enact a permanent sustainable solution that helps people thousands of miles away?

Raising Funds, Raising Hopes
My friend and Optometry Giving Sight champion, Moes Nasser, O.D., recently had the opportunity to go on a Sight Visit to one of Optometry Giving Sight's projects in Uganda to see firsthand how his donations are helping to give sight — and hope — to people in need.
The case of a young boy stands out in Dr. Nasser's memory.
"I examined a boy going into the 6th grade. He has been at a blind school for his entire education. He learned to read by using Braille," he told me. "His eyes were normal with no disease. I performed an exam and put the lenses into the trial frames. I took him to the window. I watched the emotions on his face as he looked out the window to see children playing soccer. The emotions on his face were indescribable. He had been labeled ‘blind’ his entire life. He could now go back to school — and start again, to learn and improve his life."

A $5 solution

The solution costs about $5 a person, which includes an eye exam, a pair of glasses and local resources and clinics to deliver eye care on a permanent basis. The path to this solution lies within the collective strength, generosity and expertise of optometrists around the world.

Under the umbrella of Vision 2020: The Right to Sight, which the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Agency for Prevention of Blindness (IAPB) launched jointly, numerous non-governmental agencies around the world are working to end preventable blindness. OGS, through the support of optometry, is working to fund sustainable vision care projects that specifically address blindness due to refractive error.

Optometry gives sight

Formed in 2003 by the IABP, the World Optometry Foundation (WOF) and the International Centre for Eyecare Education (ICEE), OGS has fundraising programs in the Unites States, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. Since its inception, the organization has been working to address the challenges in global vision care by raising friends and funds, through building partnerships and identifying the best models for sustainable vision care.

In 2007, OGS was able to allocate its first $1 million to sustainable projects that will give sight to people in Africa, Sri Lanka, East Timor and Indigenous Australia who have refractive error blindness and impaired vision. By the end of 2009, OGS plans to distribute an additional $4 million to its priority projects, including new initiatives in partnership with the Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity (VOSH) International.

Optometrists, their staffs, patients and optometry students have raised the funds through regular monthly giving, practice promotions and the annual World Sight Day Challenge — an annual event that asks O.D.s to donate one day's eye exam fees. In 2007, it raised $250,000 and by the end of this year is on track to double that amount. The optical industry has also been incredibly generous. Through the sponsorship of numerous companies in the United States, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom, OGS has been able to ensure that 85% of all funds raised by individuals are directed toward projects.

Building partnerships and sustainable vision care

OGS's priority projects have resulted in more than one million people regaining their independence through sight. It will use the additional $4 million to screen more than five million people, as well as train 700 new eyecare technicians and establish 102 vision centers.

All projects follow the guidelines set forth by VISION 2020 and seek to undertake service delivery with a focus on local capacity building and infrastructure development to ensure that the provision of local eyecare services is sustainable and affordable. These projects include:

► The Giving Sight to Blind Children project (see "Raising Funds, Raising Hopes," above), has already examined 3,057 partially sighted children in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania and provided them with spectacles and low vision devices, as well as training for six local optometrists and two low vision therapists. Stage two of the project seeks to increase school retention rates by training teachers to provide screening to 112,000 school children ages 11 through 15 in the southern province of Zambia. OGS anticipates that 5,000 children will receive refraction and low vision services. Sightsavers International (Zambia Office) with its Ministries of Health & Education will undertake the project.

► The Giving Sight to Sri Lanka project, spear headed by partner ICEE, screened 38,607 people, provided glasses to 29,523, referred 2,394 and trained 15 eyecare personnel by the end of 2007. The 2008 to 2009 stages of the program, which ICEE is designing and implementing in partnership with national government and local non-government organizations (NGOs), in the Badulla and Kegalle districts in Sri Lanka's hill country, will train 36 optometric technicians, four optical workshop technicians and establish 14 eyecare centers capable of providing eyecare to 250,000 people a year.

► The Giving Sight to South Africa project, which is the overall program of ICEE in South Africa, its the Department of Health and local partners, seeks to deliver long-term sustainable eyecare that includes incorporating private O.D.s into public hospital eye clinics. By the end of 2007, more than one million individuals underwent screenings, 24,484 people received glasses, and 268 mid-level eyecare professionals received training.

OGS sponsored activities combined with the Seeing is Believing project, sponsored by Standard Chartered Bank and a childhood blindness project sponsored by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), will have a major impact on blindness and impaired vision in South Africa. By 2009, this initiative will have examined more than two million children and 1.4 million adults and provided glasses, referrals and low vision services to these people. Critical to the future will be the training of 695 eyecare personnel, the establishment of 88 new vision centers and optical workshops.

► The new partnership with VOSH International recognizes OGS's fundraising experience and VOSH's activities in the design, implementation and execution of sustainable programs principally in Latin America. In October, VOSH International received its first $75,000 disbursement for funding a sustainable vision care project in Nicaragua. Additional OGS and VOSH International projects will be announced in the coming years, as funding and project planning grows.

U.S. professional optometric associations organizations, such as the American Optometric Association, Vision Source!, the Southern Educational Congress of Optometry (SECO) International, the North Central States Optometric Council and numerous state optometric associations including Wisconsin, Ohio, Georgia, Maryland and Texas continue to endorse OGS as the International Charity of Choice.

Give sight, give now

OGS needs optometry's continued financial support in order to screen five million people by the end of 2009. Optometrists, para-optometrics, staff, students, corporate leaders and patients all play a role in eliminating avoidable blindness. You can sign up for a regular monthly or annual contribution. This sustainable gift allows OGS to fund its sustainable projects around the world. A donation of $25 per month can give sight to 60 individuals annually.

You can get your practices and staff involved by encouraging staff donations, educating patients and planning participation in the annual World Sight Day Challenge. A product-related donation is another great way to give. Simply add on a couple of dollars for each pair of glasses, contact lenses or other eyecare products sold in your practice. OM

For more information, visit:

Dr. Connors is the CEO and Chair of Optometry Giving Sight in the United States. He has served as president of the World Council of Optometry, the Wisconsin Optometric Association and the American Optometric Association. He started his optometric practice, Isthmus Eye Care in Middleton, Wisc. in 1971.

Optometric Management, Issue: December 2008