World Sight Day illuminates humanity’s blindness

We must acknowledge humanity’s suffering if we are to heal it.

by Jennifer Bissell

French archaeologist Paul Veyne struck proverbial gold when he quipped, âÄúWhen one does not see what one does not see, one does not even see that one is blind.âÄù In the spirit of enlightenment and awareness, one should know that today, Oct. 8, is World Sight Day. Even in this great age of progress, with all humanityâÄôs power of knowledge, technology and medicine, simple blindness still hinders many. According to the World Health Organization, there are 314 million people living with low vision and blindness. Even more appalling, 80 percent of blindness is preventable or treatable. Vision 2020, an advocate for this annual awareness event, states that these current numbers are actually a drastic improvement compared to past years. In 1985 the number of people affected by blinding trachoma was roughly 70 percent higher than it is today. But this major reduction cannot stop here, as the group also claims that if major intervention in the situation does not continue to take place, the current number of people with blindness will almost double in 10 years. Cataracts and trachoma are two of the most common causes of impaired vision, and parts of the extended list of ailments that Vision 2020 aims to eliminate entirely by the year 2020. They believe they will be able to follow through with this plan by implementing a combination of three different elements: cost effective disease control, human resource development and the use of infrastructure and technology. The goal of eliminating preventable blindness and the steps that Vision 2020 has outlined are commendable, but another part of me is always skeptical of such lofty goals. I feel like if IâÄôve never heard of these harsh realities, neither have a lot of other people. WouldnâÄôt it be hard to end a world crisis without the help of the public donating and acting as advocates? But on the other hand, the progress already made is indisputable, and this was done largely under the radar. Yet, in addition to the work being done by Vision 2020, there are a number of other organizations contributing to the aim as well. ORBIS International, a fully equipped teaching hospital operating within a traveling airplane, has made great strides in treating avoidable blindness. Since 1982, they have directly treated 9.2 million patients with blindness-related illnesses. In addition, they have also trained more than 234,000 ophthalmologists, nurses, biomedical engineers and other health care workers to aid in the treatment and prevention of sightlessness. With some optimism, these advocates will be able to reduce the scourge of blindness among children, as well. ORBIS states that 50-60 percent of blind children die within a year of their blindness either because of the underlying cause of their impaired vision or often because their parents are too poor to provide treatment. This is unacceptable and as the chairman of ORBIS notes, âÄúEvery child in every country should have the right to sight and the opportunity to lead a full and productive life.âÄù Every child, man and woman deserves to have sight no matter how poor or unfortunate he or she has been. Vision is a basic human function, and if we can prevent 80 percent of human blindness, humanity must do so, or at the very least continue an attempt to do so. As with past years, there is a theme to this yearâÄôs World Sight Day. This yearâÄôs theme is equal access to care. In many areas, women are denied access to eye care whereas men are not. According to Vision 2020, almost two-thirds of blind people are now women and young girls. By advocating awareness on this topic, the goal is that women and children will be offered treatment options comparable to their adult male counterparts. According to the World Health Organization, providing equal access to care would substantially reduce the number of blind people in poor areas. After sifting through these facts and speculations, one nagging thought continued to surface in my psyche: I should have known the extent of the problem of blindness in our modern world. The range of people that blindness affects âÄî a number equivalent to the entire U.S. population âÄî is reason enough to have been educated, yet I do not think this ignorance comes as a surprise to many. ItâÄôs a problem that affects mainly poor countries, and like any other problem, it has a solution. Too often, it feels daunting to live in a world so freshly aware of its holistic self and its problems. But this unique situation offers us also a wealth of knowledge on how to solve our problems. Advances in both medicine and technology suggest we have never been so well-connected or collectively intelligent, yet the most basic capability âÄî vision âÄî still escapes millions while billions sit idly watching from a comfortable distance. We could argue that with so much peril it can seem impossible to care about the worldâÄôs ills, which invites a general apathy, ennui or malaise. But whichever label finds us, we cannot avoid the fact that it amounts to the cynical end of humanity. When we stop caring, we stop thinking. Ergo, Descartes would argue we cease to be human. We must begin to admit our collective blindness to world suffering, whether itâÄôs the problem of sightlessness, genocide in Darfur or poverty here in America. To heal humanityâÄôs sufferings, we must first make ourselves aware of them: to see our blindness as Veyne says. Only through constant striving toward enlightenment can we begin to build a visibly brighter, more vibrant future for all. Jennifer Bissell welcomes comments at [email protected].