Millions of visually impaired Rwandans will have a pair of glasses by 2018, thanks to the efforts of British businessman James Chen and international nonprofit Vision for a Nation. Chen’s company Adlens designed the spectacles — which cost less than two U.S. dollars — using a design from late Nobel Prize-winning scientist Luis Alvarez.
United Kingdom publication The Sunday Times reported that the project, financed by the U.K.’s Department for International Development, will likely expand to African countries Botswana and Namibia, and Bhutan in Asia.
According to volunteer eye health and safety organization Prevent Blindness, key causes of vision loss include age-related macular degeneration, cataracts, diabetic retinopathy and glaucoma. During a time when vision loss — partial or whole — affects nearly 517 million people worldwide, government officials have touted the project as a step forward in addressing an increasingly common public health issue.
“These affordable, self-adjustable gasses are a real game changer,” Justine Greening, U.K.’s International Development Secretary, told The Independent. “British ingenuity like this can transform the lives of millions of visually impaired people across the developing world. I’m proud that British inventors are responsible for breakthroughs that continue to improve the world around us.”
While eyeglasses can serve as an aid for the visually impaired, many low-income people don’t have access to corrective vision tools, due in part to its high costs. Plus, in the developing world, there are so few eye care specialists that it’s hard for poor people to find someone to conduct even the simplest exam. That’s why the World Health Organization’s latest action plan called for a focus on “universal eye health,” setting a target of reducing avoidable vision impairment by 25 percent in the next five years.
But this isn’t just an issue for developing nations. Here in the United States, the adults at high risk of vision loss tend to use eye care services much less than their insured and affluent counterparts. And the prevalence of poor eyesight among Americans is expected to triple within the next couple decades.
Nonetheless, even with the passage of the Affordable Care Act, some Americans will not get the eye health care coverage they need. While health plans in exchanges must provide eye exams and glasses for children, adults won’t be able to secure a pair spectacles or contacts. Rules that forbid the purchase of individual policies with federal tax credits further complicates things for many of the visually impaired.
The lack of access to affordable glasses poses severe health consequences for the visually impaired, especially those in lower income brackets — a reality that some experts say undermines the Affordable Care Act’s goal of providing preventative health care.
Many studies, for example, have tied vision impairment to the prevalence of chronic health conditions, falls and injuries, depression, and social isolation. In Americans older than 65, loss of eyesight reduces one’s ability to lead a normal life and take part in everyday activities — including reading, writing, driving, and watching television. It can also mean a shorter lifespan, according to a study conducted by researchers at Purdue University West Lafayette, Ind. Children with poor vision also stand a greater chance of not performing well in school and later entering the criminal justice system, according to data compiled by the National Parent-Teacher Association.
The health care industry also takes on the burden of poor eyesight — medical expenses for adults with vision impairment total more than $8 million annually.
Just like Chen’s efforts, some philanthropic organizations have stepped up to the plate to fill this void. Since 1932, New Jersey-based nonprofit Free Eyes has provided more than 8 million pairs of glasses to Americans and people across the world. Uninsured children can also get free eye exams through Sights for Students, a national Vison Service Provider that identifies the greatest need through its network of eye doctors who provide these services.