The unprecedented changes in global health that we have all experienced over the past year have broadly revealed health inequities, making it even more necessary to advocate for better overall health.
"Vision Health is no exception"
For years, the Vision Impact Institute has engaged in global advocacy initiatives, to complement our awareness-building, to give a voice to vision within the global public health conversation. Now, perhaps more than ever, as children experience disruptions to their education, vision health advocacy for children must be a top priority.
Globally, one in three people has a vision problem, and 239 million children live with poor vision. Addressing vision problems in children is particularly important because poor vision can – and does – lead to lack of concentration in the classroom, poor academic performance, and behavioral problems. Children are our future, and it is our responsibility to defend their right to good vision, to invest in their future and the future of healthy societies.
Collaborating with professional and community member organizations in advocacy efforts is key to developing sound policies for children’s vision. In the U.S., we continue to use evidence-based research to advocate for good vision by focusing on promoting policy changes such as requiring comprehensive eye exams for children entering school. As the gold standard for detecting vision problems in young children, eye exams are also the most important preventive way to maintain good vision.
In Latin America, school-based eye health programs and vision screenings are the only access point to help identify possible eye disorders and conditions. We believe that advocacy efforts there must be focused on transforming public policies in health and education systems to include strategic planning and training of human resources, combatting inequities, providing better access, and strengthening the timely and quality delivery of vision care services.
Despite the many efforts of international organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), who have been working to find solutions to help governments address the vision care gap, vision impairment in children continues to be an unaddressed issue. Advocacy helps reduce barriers to children’s vision care services through increased coordination and collaboration between governmental and private organizations, raising the need to integrate eye care for children as a key component of public health systems in many countries within the region.
From the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, advocacy efforts around the world focused on addressing a range of policy issues to offset the pandemic’s negative effects. One critical issue is that children’s time spent on digital devices, due to lockdowns and new school learning models, increased, and time spent outdoors reduced. Even before the pandemic, education tools inside the classroom had progressively changed from blackboards to whiteboards and computer screens.
In this age of smartphones, laptops, and tablets – and when almost everything has gone virtual – it is difficult to step away. Because these learning models and tools will likely continue to be used, we anticipate a faster rise of myopia (nearsightedness) in children. According to experts, one of the best alternatives to combating the negative effects of screen time is limiting device time by balancing outdoor time, which has been proven to help slow the progression of myopia. But it’s still up to us to ensure that parents and educators are aware of this alternative.
Another important negative effect is that some children might never return to school. According to a recent UNICEF report in Latin America and the Caribbean, more than three million children are likely to drop out of school, leaving them at risk and depriving them of access to health programs. This will also limit schools’ ability to monitor or identify possible warning signs of vision problems in the classroom.
This emerging challenge will have key implications in the future of children’s health and learning. By building awareness and playing our role as children’s advocates, we are also protecting and meeting the needs of the most vulnerable while building more equitable and stronger systems.
The state of today’s world amplifies the need for vision advocacy. As a major global public health concern, this requires effective strides to empower and engage partners, as well as government leadership so that vision care is available to all children, including those in underserved communities.
Through our ongoing advocacy work in the U.S., through the Kids See: Success initiative, and through partnerships with Latin American stakeholders, we will stay committed to taking action and creating sustainable solutions to prioritize children’s vision at all levels of government. Success will come from promoting regional, country and state-level laws and regulations.
We all have opportunities to take action and improve the eye health and health equity of our children. Let’s join together and be a voice for children’s vision and their future.
In order to help you and your organization advocate for children's vision, please feel free to save this infographic and use it in your presentation materials:
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.