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The Power of Research: Advocating for Better Outcomes in Eye Care for Latin America & the Caribbean


Research and evidence have amazing power to drive advocacy and inspire action, and at the VII, we have curated significant evidence to highlight the global need for vision correction.


According to the latest global research, the number of people around the world with vision loss is projected to reach 1.7 billion by 2050, with more than 161 million people currently suffering from uncorrected refractive errors (URE), the leading cause of blindness and moderate to severe vision loss.


The estimated number of people with vision loss in Latin America and the Caribbean region is 78 million, with nearly 15 million affected by blindness and moderate to severe vision loss due to URE.


When it comes to local and country-level evidence, the story becomes harder to tell. As Program Manager for The Americas, I see that every day.


In Latin America, regional and national eye health data needed to empower local advocates and problem-solvers remain scarce. Many of the experts I work with also experience this in their daily work.


Dr. Juan Carlos Silva, former Regional Advisor, Vision and Hearing Care, PAHO

“Most of the evidence collected in Latin America is on how to identify vision problems and their impact on the population. There is a lack of research on how to turn evidence into policies and programs. We need evidence on the effectiveness of advocacy, health education, and communication programs and on interventions like low-cost spectacles and telemedicine to increase access in the public and nonprofit sectors.”

 

Mauricio Confar, Country Manager, Essilor Colombia

“The best way to solve a problem is to identify it and understand its causes, the barriers to solving it and the consequences of not doing so. That is why, when we can show scientific evidence of a public health problem, we are more likely to get the support of stakeholders and the government to allocate resources and develop new public policies and health actions as solutions. Unfortunately in Colombia there is not sufficient information or scientific baselines on the visual health needs of the population.”

 

Dr. Abraham Campos Romero, Innovation and Research Manager Salud Digna Mexico

Research allows us to know the most prevalent visual health conditions in the country and identify risk factors and the profiles of population groups that are at greater risk of developing visual impairment and blindness. It allows us to have information that supports decision-making for the creation of public policies aimed at preventing visual impairment and strengthening the early detection of visual problems, which will allow us to reduce blindness in the future, improving the quality of life of people and positively impacting the socioeconomic development of the country.


While it is easy to say that more research is needed, it can be costly in both time and money. There are, however, several ways to consider research from an investment approach. Research can:


STRENGTHEN EYE HEALTH SYSTEMS

People depend on good vision for everyday life. Education, worker productivity, and safer mobility all must be supported by strong public health systems. One way to strengthen eye health systems is with strong evidence to determine the cost and accessibility of quality services that create the path for sustainable interventions at the primary care level. Achieving this, however, requires us to bolster capacity building to conduct rigorous and robustly designed research that would allow implementation and drive results. It would also require better distribution of the eye care workforce in Latin America.


According to Dr. Juan Carlos Silva, there is a significant inequality in the distribution of ophthalmologists in the region: “Human resources in eye care are concentrated in the wealthy districts leaving the poorest areas with insufficient services” and highlighting the need for “creating incentives for a better distribution and quality of eye care professionals.”


This is also true in other countries like Colombia, according to Mauricio Confar, Country Manager, Essilor: “In Colombia, there are approximately 1,500 ophthalmologists (31.1 per million) and 6,491 optometrists (127.6 per million), highly concentrated in the main cities.”


REDUCE AWARENESS GAPS

Raising awareness about good vision is also another important step towards improving health outcomes. Awareness campaigns need robust data. For years, research has been underfunded in Low-and-Middle-Income Countries (LMICs). It is important to expand research funding from inside and outside the eye care sector to address potential gaps in the future. This can be done through a wide range of research work like rigorous systematic reviews, impact evaluations, and population-based cohort studies in vision health that shed light on inequalities in vulnerable and at-risk populations.


It is also important to highlight the significance of global eye health and vision care evidence (i.e., global reports) through awareness to inform all stakeholders of the importance of global evidence and the need to invest in impact research on myopia, children’s education, road safety, and worker productivity at the local level.


IMPROVE STAKEHOLDER COORDINATION

Brainstorming helps us connect, share knowledge, and stimulate new research ideas. Collaboration helps us optimize resources and complement new and existing research needs.


The VII has built strong partnerships with a variety of stakeholders to reduce the limitations and data gaps in eye health research in Latin America and the Caribbean. We have added a research component to several existing projects, connecting academia with vision care NGOs to strengthen data collection of sometimes small, but robust, well-curated data sets. This data can, at minimum, offer a roadmap for future work.


Improved coordination and collaboration among global partners is critical to delivering high-quality research. This applies to clinical research, but also implementation and impact research on eye health and vision care correction. In many countries, implementation research has shown us that providing eyeglasses could be a cost-effective solution that helps reduce the gap in eye care while generating socio-economic gains.


SHAPE POLICIES

Evidence should inform decision making and translate into policies that achieve lasting outcomes. Evolving research into solid policy approaches that address important challenges in eye health has not been easy. As a result of important reports such as the World Report on Vision and the most recent report from The Lancet Global Health Commission, there is hope that research findings can be translated into policies and practice like the UN Resolution that aims to ensure eye care for all people.


Advances in regional and national research continue to support vision work, plus they underscore how we approach eye health policies. However, educating policymakers is equally important so that they understand the current and future eye health issues facing their public health systems. Adapting to shifting population changes like aging, lifestyles, significant myopia, and other related eye diseases is a challenge they must be ready to meet head-on.


With greater coordination, better use of robust evidence, and effective implementation results made possible by investments in research, we have the power to shift the trajectory of eye health in Latin American and the Caribbean. By advocating for and supporting innovative public policies, we can help improve public health systems. Doing that will help us all achieve social change at scale for generations to come.

 

Judith Marcano Williams is the Program Manager – Americas at the Vision Impact Institute, working with governments, key opinion leaders, and non-governmental organizations to raise awareness for healthy vision through advocacy initiatives in the region.