Advancing Eye Health in Rwanda
Globally, at least 1 billion people are affected by vision impairment. The World Health Organization estimates 80% of these cases are treatable and, if addressed at an early stage, largely preventable. The prevalence of vision impairment is four times higher in low and middle-income countries where malnutrition, poor water quality, and lack of access to medical treatment can lead to cataracts or glaucoma—the primary causes of blindness in these economies. In Rwanda, one of the poorest and most densely populated countries in Africa, researchers found that 34 percent of the population is in need of some form of eye care.
Established in 2012, Vision for a Nation strives to make “local-level eye care globally accessible” by providing self-sustaining eye care services in some of the world’s poorest communities. With support from a CAF America grant, the organization’s pilot program focused its efforts in Rwanda by working collaboratively with the Ministry of Health to provide eye health screening training to an initial 2,700 nurses in all 502 government health centers around the country. This course was also incorporated into the curriculum of eight local nursing schools, the institutions bearing the primary responsibility for training the next generation of Rwanda’s healthcare workers.
Untreated vision problems create a significant drag on social and economic progress. In reference to the effect vision impairment has on the livelihoods of women working in Rwanda’s coffee industry sorting beans, consultant to Vision for a Nation Dr Graeme Mackenzie shared, “Their quality of work suffers and therefore their income suffers.” It is one example of how these medical conditions threaten livelihoods across industries and reinforce the cycle of poverty. Vision for a Nation is acutely aware of the difficulties rural communities face in accessing all forms of healthcare. The organization began a nationwide outreach program to deliver eye-care services to Rwanda’s most remote and underserved communities. One of the organization’s greatest successes has been the distribution of a special type of eyeglasses that adjusts its lens with the turn of a dial. Whereas with traditional prescription eyewear lenses must be upgraded every several years adding a significant cost for the patients, these glasses allow both short and farsighted individuals to self-adjust as needed resulting in considerable savings over time. The glasses are sold for the equivalent of US$1.50 and are distributed for free to the poorest 20 percent of the population. Over 180,000 Rwandans have received eyeglasses as a result of the program along with 1.3 million who have received eye drops to treat common eye infections such as conjunctivitis.
The results of Vision for a Nation’s pilot program are nothing short of outstanding. Thanks in large part to its targeted programming and strategic partnership with the public sector, eye care services are now accessible to all 12 million people in Rwanda. By empowering remote communities with health equity, residents are better able to care for themselves and move toward healthier and more financially stable futures.