Childhood blindness remains a significant problem globally, especially in developing countries. When eye diseases and conditions that occur in early childhood are left untreated, they can result in visual impairment or blindness. The major causes vary and are largely determined by socioeconomic status and access to primary health care and eye care services.
In low income countries, childhood blindness is often caused by corneal scarring from measles and vitamin A deficiency. In middle income countries, retinopathy of prematurity—abnormal blood vessel development in the retina in a premature infant— is a major cause. In all countries, childhood blindness may occur as a result of congenital abnormalities, such as cataract and glaucoma.
An estimated 1.4 million children are blind, with an estimated 500,000 new cases of childhood blindness each year. Of those new cases, 50 percent of children die within one to two years. Those who survive their early years face significant challenges to their educational, physical and social development as well as a lifetime without vision. The economic impact is substantial on the children and their families, as they are often unable to work due to lack of education and training opportunities for the visually impaired.
The cases of childhood visual impairment caused by Uncorrected Refractive Error (URE) can be easily diagnosed and corrected with glasses, contact lenses or refractive surgery. Childhood blindness caused by cataract can be treated with a simple and cost-effective surgery.
Beginning in 2001, LCIF and our SightFirst program joined with the World Health Organization (WHO) for the Lions-WHO Project for the Elimination of Childhood Blindness. For this project LCIF has given grants totaling close to US$7 million throughout the six WHO regions to establish needs-based pediatric eye care centers. Phase I of the childhood blindness project established 34 pediatric Lions eye care centers; Phase II will support 10 of those centers and an additional 16 centers.
The Bausch + Lomb Early Vision Institute and LCIF have recently partnered on the Pediatric Cataract Initiative to identify, fund and promote innovative methods of overcoming this issue. The first year of the project is focusing on the People’s Republic of China, where an estimated 40,000 children suffer from pediatric cataract. The Initiative is also funding basic research initiatives aimed at better understanding the causes of pediatric cataract and/or its treatment.
Fighting the fight against childhood blindness will continue to remain an important program area for SightFirst. Childhood blindness projects must include:
- Primary eye care to prevent certain causes of childhood blindness.
- Specialty training in pediatric ophthalmology; increasing the number of eye care personnel available to perform pediatric cataract surgery and screen and treat ROP; and provision of low vision services.
In general, SightFirst projects must focus on the major causes of blindness on national or large regional levels. These projects reach populations who are underserved or who have limited or no access to eye health care services. The program funds high-quality, sustainable projects that deliver eye care services, develop infrastructure, train personnel and/or provide rehabilitation and education in underserved communities.