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Visual impairment: How does India fare?

A man receives an optometry screening at a camp in Kolkata, West Bengal.

On visual impairment, India has performed well against World Health Organization (WHO) benchmarks in reducing its number of cases. 

In India, more than sixty million people experience some form of visual impairment and the country is home to twenty percent of the world’s blind population. However, significant progress has been made in recent years. Since the 2006-07 period, total blindness cases have dropped from twelve million to 4.8 million in 2019 according to the National Blindness and Visually Impaired Survey, which screened almost 1.1 lakh people across 24 states.

“The house-to-house survey was designed to generate representative data for the sampled districts as well as for India,” said Promila Gupta, a Principal Consultant for the National Programme for Control of Blindness. “An additional survey was conducted between 0-49 years age group in January to February 2019 and covered 18,000 people in six districts across various regions of India.”

The drop in blindness cases translates to a reduction of more than 47.1 percent, well above the WHO target of a 25 percent reduction. In addition, visual impairment declined by 51.9 percent and moderate to severe visual impairment declined by 52.6 percent. Untreated cataracts were responsible for 66.2 percent of cases of blindness. 

The survey was conducted by the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in conjunction with the All India Institute of Medical Sciences’s Dr Rajendra Prasad Centre for Ophthalmic Sciences over a three-year period, between 2015 and 2018. The WHO has issued a target for bringing down blindness cases to reflect only 0.3 percent of a country’s total population, with the latest findings suggesting India is on course to achieve this according to Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan. 

Per the survey, the prevalence of blindness in the country stands at 0.36 percent; severe visual impairment stands at 0.35 percent; moderate to severe visual impairment at 1.84 percent; and early visual impairment at 2.92 percent. Rural areas bear the brunt of blindness in the country, with the prevalence there standing at 2.14 percent compared to 1.8 percent in cities. 

Major challenges exist in India to tackle its visual impairment – not least a shortage of ophthalmologists and optometrists. While the progress made is encouraging, to reach WHO targets will require building on these efforts and increasing the workforce, access to screening and diagnostics, and affordable treatment. 

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