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Increased Awareness and Research Are Key to Good Vision in the Americas

In the second half of 2018, we made a key decision to raise the global footprint of the Vision Impact Institute through the expansion of our team in key regions. I recently had the privilege to sit down with Judith Marcano Williams, VII Program Manager, The Americas, to capture a better understanding of this important region and its unique challenges and opportunities that exist for the priority of vision care.

When you think about the Americas, what do you believe is unique to this region?

In a snapshot, there are 35 countries, more than one billion people, and more than 40 languages spoken. There are stigmas around vision care, especially for girls and women, and significant economic disparities. With multiple country and state governments regulating topics related to vision care, the region holds a vast opportunity to improve vision health policies.

Given the challenges of working across multiple cultures, languages and governments, how do you set focus priorities across the region?

In keeping with the global strategy of the Vision Impact Institute, our focus in the Americas is to advocate for policy change and empower others to create change in the areas of vision and education, as well as vision and road safety. Additionally, as myopia increases at an even more alarming rate across the region, we are focused on awareness and advocacy for early intervention of myopia.

Are there key research studies you have identified that empower your work or create a basis for the advocacy work you are doing in the Americas?

In the U.S., a recent study by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, Making Eye Health A Population Health Imperative: Vision for Tomorrow, has been a game-changer and serves as a basis of our advocacy work for comprehensive eye exams for children before they enter kindergarten. It set a clear foundation, noting the eye exam as the “gold standard.”

The research study Global Prevalence of Myopia and High Myopia and Temporal Trends from 2000 through 2050 clearly indicates that the Americas are at risk of a faster rise in myopia. What used to be seen as purely genetic and mostly affecting Asian populations is on the rise in developed and developing countries alike.

A recent study in Colombia, Prevalence of Refractive Error, Presbyopia, and Spectacle Coverage in Bogotá, Colombia: A Rapid Assessment of Refractive Error, shows that 55% of the 35+ adult population is presbyopic and would benefit from near vision correction. This study suggests a much earlier entry age for presbyopia than has been seen in the past. It also suggests that access to correction is limited by the population’s ability to afford spectacles due to economic factors.

What topic in research would help to create the most change in your region?

In the Latin American countries specifically, there is a deficit in research around children’s vision and its link to learning, while in other countries there is a plethora of these types of studies. While one could make the leap that what’s good for one child is good for another, oftentimes, governments and other deciding bodies want and need regional and country-specific information in order to create change.

While studies like Road Safety in the Americas exist, vision is left completely off the table. Research that has been done in other regions to show the relationship between good vision and road safety would be ideal to challenging the norms of licensing and road safety standards.

Tell us one thing you are proud of – and what is the greatest challenge you still face in the Americas?

I’m most proud of the fact that through partnerships and collaborations with other vision-centric organizations, we have increased awareness of the need for vision care. The Vision Impact Institute has become a trusted partner for advocacy and awareness-building across the Americas, and this will enable our ability to continue increasing the priority of vision for years to come.

Our greatest challenge today is that research is limited in this region – specifically in the areas of uncorrected refractive error (URE) and the benefits of correction. As the population ages and myopia continues to rise, more research and policy changes will be needed to address these growing trends.