DEALING WITH VISUAL IMPAIRMENT
Blindness is a public health emergency which deserves adequate attention
One of the most neglected health challenges in Nigeria is blindness, with reports suggesting that 4.2 million persons are visually impaired. The Resource Center for the Blind (RCB), a non-governmental organisation, recently called on government at all levels as well as corporate organisations to ensure inclusive opportunities for the visually impaired and people with special needs. “We can no longer turn a blind eye to poor vision. Blindness does not just exacerbate existing poverty in poor countries; it also causes people to become poor,” said RCB Director, Temitayo Ayinla-Omotola.
However, with just about 700 ophthalmologists to a population of more than 200 million people against the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) recommendation of one to 50,000 people in developing countries, it is evident that Nigeria is seriously challenged. Yet, the visual impairment of one person, according to WHO, affects four other persons, which means that about 18 million Nigerians are either spending their productive hours as caregivers, or are unable to live quality lives because they have a blind family member to take care of. Also worrisome is that several millions of others who are partially impaired are likely to go totally blind as well if nothing is done to address the burden.
This is a problem for the authorities in the health sector. Sadly, many of these Nigerians are within the productive years, and are likely not going to make ends meet for themselves and their families, a scenario that fuels poverty for themselves and the society. The real tragedy is that despite the worrying indices, Nigeria has not taken the public health challenge as a priority, as there are currently no special available healthcare interventions or social programmes against visual impairment, commonly caused by glaucoma, cataract, and trachoma. But the leading cause of visual impairment is uncorrected refractive errors.
With many of our health professionals relocating abroad due to the nature of our reward system, it is instructive that Egypt, a fellow African country, has 2,139 ophthalmologists for its population of 94 million, while the South African population of 57 million has at least 342 ophthalmologists to cater for the eyes of its citizens. That Nigeria, which prides itself as the giant of Africa, and the biggest economy on the continent, has less than a thousand ophthalmologists per one million citizens, is shameful. This therefore calls for urgent intervention from the federal and state governments, as well as healthcare stakeholders, including development partners.
There is an urgent need to put up programmes that would ensure the requisite intervention the challenge of blindness deserves in the country. Specifically, government should establish a programme for blindness, just as it has done for Lassa fever, HIV, malaria, and tuberculosis. They should also put in place policies that would encourage doctors to major in eye care. With the disease known to have a close relationship with poverty and illiteracy, it should set up social intervention programmes to support treatment and management of the health challenge in persons affected.
Of important consequences are the number of out-of-school children who will end up not getting proper education because they are blind and unable to learn; the inability of children to attend school because the bread winners of their homes, who should take them through school are blind and unable to earn money for their educational support. Nigerians should also do well to prevent risk factors associated with blindness, which include smoking, unhealthy diets and hygiene, direct sunlight, injuries to the eyes, among others. Since the situation we are in is that of emergency in the sector, we call for concerted efforts in dealing with the menace of blindness in our country.