Childhood blindness

Ensuring healthy visual development in those crucial first few years

If a child's eye condition is not identified early enough, it can lead to irreversible visual impairment or even blindness – which in turn can create a cycle of social exclusion, emotional trauma and economic hardship. We go to countries where specialist skills and knowledge of children's eye health are in demand. We work with schools, communities and eye health professionals to screen and treat children and create brighter futures.

Bangladesh and India

Over the course of our four-year Qatar Creating Vision project in India, which came to a close in 2020, we’ve pioneered and piloted the largest child eye health programme of its kind, REACH (Refractive Error Among Children). REACH is a school-screening model that identifies children with refractive error – typically myopia, which makes seeing the blackboard in class harder – and provides them with glasses where necessary.

In Bangladesh, we’ve established a vast and robust community referral network. Starting with ‘vision points’ in schools, community health workers refer people in need of eye care to specialist staff in Vision Centres and hospitals. We're especially pleased to report that most of the seven community Vision Centres we established are now self-financing. In fact, the Government of Bangladesh and local partner BRAC have been so impressed with the centres' effectiveness, they have pledged to build more Vision Centres, bringing specialist eye care services to more districts across the country.

Since the project began, across both countries and together with our partners, we’ve supported the delivery of more than 6 million children’s eye health screenings, leading to nearly 400,000 prescriptions for glasses and over 24,000 surgeries. We’ve also created sustainable eye care services through the training of over 81,000 doctors, ophthalmologists, nurses, teachers, community health workers and surgeons (including specialists in retinopathy of prematurity – a condition which affects premature babies).

A young boy in Nepal has his vision tested.


Nepal

Our work in Nepal also centres on REACH. This year, we managed to screen 52,397 children before coronavirus caused schools to close. During that time, outreach teams from our partner Nepal Netra Jyoti Sangh hospitals were redeployed to support the pandemic response.

Something much more positive

Sneha's Story

Some of the children in Sneha's school in the Parsa district of Nepal just don’t get it. If they see a classmate wearing glasses, they'll tease them – “double battery” is one of their favourite insults. But as Sneha and growing numbers of children in Nepal are coming to realise, glasses are actually a sign of something much more positive.

Sneha loves to study. But it was becoming impossible for her to see the blackboard in class. She'd resorted to copying friends' notebooks to make sure she wasn't left behind. Too often in developing countries eye health issues in children go undetected, becoming increasingly debilitating over time. Problems seeing the classroom blackboard due to shortsightedness (myopia) are among the most tell-tale signs – and precisely the symptoms that our REACH programmes are designed to identify.

Sneha was one of 2,625 children to be prescribed glasses before the pandemic forced schools to close.

Sneha, in Grade 8, was one of the 52,000 children screened during a REACH programme before the pandemic forced schools to close. She received them two weeks later. Not only do these programmes improve children's eye health, by appointing child ‘Vision Ambassadors’ to raise awareness and counselling parents they also help break down the stigma of wearing glasses.

12-year-old Sneha wearing her glasses with her family.
12-year-old Sneha wearing her glasses with her family.

Sneha's grandmother was convinced: "Spectacles don't affect anyone's appearance. Getting the right vision is more important, and there is no correlation between specs and beauty". Her attitude had definitely rubbed off on Sneha, who was proud of her glasses and more than ready to recommend eye tests for her schoolmates.

We asked Sneha what might lay ahead after school now she can happily study again. "Bank manager", came the immediate reply, with a distinctly confident new smile.

With schools closed, we needed to find an alternative way to continue looking after children's eye health. Enter the Female Community Health Volunteers. As established government health workers who already knew their communities inside out, they were the perfect candidates to support our house-to-house screenings. They helped us reach a further 27,036 children by the end of the year. With this adapted approach, we even managed to reach more than 1,000 children who didn’t normally go to school, and who therefore would not otherwise have been screened.

"Spectacles don't affect anyone's appearance. Getting the right vision is more important, and there is no correlation between specs and beauty."

Sneha's grandmother

Zambia

As with so many of our partner hospitals this year, the Masaiti district hospital in the Northern region of Zambia had to adapt quickly to deal with the pandemic. Once it had been converted to a COVID-19 isolation centre, local eye care professionals were reassigned for roles including screening visitors for coronavirus at a roadside checkpoint.

Despite these and other challenges, our project still supported almost 40,000 child screenings. And in all 10 districts, we successfully integrated eye health into other health services, including maternal and child health programmes – which means eye care has become more mainstream and likely to be prioritised in future.

An eye screening programme in Nepal.
An eye screening programme in Nepal.