Commentary: World Sight Day puts focus on eye health

Our eyes truly tell a story. Do you know that simply by looking into someone’s eyes, humans can distinguish more than 40 complex emotions – from awe to pride to love – with nearly 90 percent accuracy?

It’s truly astounding when you think about it. Consider a child who receives the gift of corrective glasses and sees their parents clearly for the first time or an older patient, who after years of cloudy vision, regains the brilliance of their sight following cataract surgery. Our eyes and healthy vision are an important way through which we experience and contribute to the world around us. However, they’re not always the first priority when it comes to our individual health. What’s more, not everyone has access to the resources and treatment they need to keep their eyes healthy over a lifetime.

This needs to change.

Thursday (Oct. 13) is World Sight Day, and the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness (IAPB) has continued last year’s theme of #LoveYourEyes – a call for people to prioritize their eye health. But loving our eyes means helping to ensure that the precious gift of sight and healthy vision is supported within our own communities from very early ages.

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Globally, more than 1.1 billion people are living with uncorrected vision impairments, and 90 percent of those individuals live in low- and middle-income countries. Vision impairment is also shown to have greater prevalence among people in regional and remote areas, women, the elderly, people with other disabilities, and ethnic minorities.

In Texas alone, it’s estimated that more than 650,000 people experience blindness or severe difficulty seeing. In Texas, the incidence of age-related eye conditions such as cataracts or macular degeneration is poised to increase as the state’s population ages.

The silver lining: 90 percent of global vision loss is treatable or preventable. That’s why ensuring local access to eye care is so important, especially when considering how untreated vision impairment can have economic implications for individuals and their families as well as more broadly in society. In fact, eye disease and vision loss costs the U.S. $68 billion annually, and the average annual salary is $10,000 less for a visually impaired adult compared to someone with healthy vision.

Supporting healthy eyes and vision must start during childhood. Eighty percent of classroom learning is visual, making the ability to read on level by third grade critical to lifelong learning. And, according to Read Fort Worth, children not reading on level in third grade are four times more likely to not graduate high school, with even starker disparities for minority students not reading at a college-ready pace. Though no single factor determines a child’s success, there are real, actionable steps we should be taking in our communities right now to solve this education and eye care issue.

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For example, Alcon partnered with the Fort Worth Independent School District in 2021 to pilot the Children’s Vision Program, which provided eye exams and glasses to elementary students in an underserved area. Approximately one-fifth of the children screened by Alcon volunteers needed vision correction, yet many did not have access to proper eye care. In our 2021-2022 pilot program, our volunteers, school nurses and other volunteers provided 35,000 screenings and identified 3,000 students in grades pre-kindergarten through fifth who received additional eye exams and glasses. We are also working to establish ongoing access to eye care for kids 18-and-under in this district.

These numbers, while impressive, don’t do the full story justice. Watching a child put on their first pair of glasses, and the look of joy and amazement on their face at being able to see clearly, is incredibly powerful. They are literally seeing the world in a completely new way and will be better quipped for success in school and beyond.

Education and access are also crucial pieces of the puzzle for maintaining healthy vision over a lifetime. But every community looks different. The common thread? Ensuring local eye care professionals (ECPs) have the necessary training and tools to deliver sustained eye care access for people within their communities, from adolescence through adulthood.

In Dallas-Fort Worth, we provide world-class training for ECPs at our Alcon Experience Center, one of 10 around the world. But for communities in India, a country that has an estimated 270 million people with vision loss and one of the highest rates of cataracts in the world, it means enhancing eye care systems, increasing the capacity of eye care providers and offering training for phacoemulsification (phaco) surgeries, the standard of care for cataract surgery. In 2021, as part of Alcon’s Project 100, we donated 34 phaco machines and trained 126 doctors and surgeons in India in this innovative cataract removal procedure.

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In other countries throughout Africa and Asia, a priority is enhancing the skills of eye care teams in areas with the greatest need. As one example, through our partnership with Orbis International’s Flying Eye Hospital, we helped train more than 680 eye care professionals who performed 3.6 million eye screenings and examinations and 38,000 surgeries in 2021.

Alcon’s purpose is to help people see brilliantly – no matter who they are or where they live. That has always been a personal and powerful motivator for me. That motivation becomes even more real when it’s brought to life through an elderly patient cured of their cataracts or a child who’s now able to see, learn and contribute during class.

This World Sight Day, we encourage everyone to remember the precious gift that is sight. Take ownership of your eyes and help others in your community to do the same by making sure you and your loved ones get regular eye exams. Because when you improve someone’s vision, it brings them back to who they are or sets them on a course to who they are meant to be.

David Endicott is the chief executive officer of Alcon, a global leader in eye care. Alcon was founded in Fort Worth more than 75 years ago, and is today the largest eye care device company in the world.