By: Mark Mwenda
Eye health is a crucial yet often underestimated aspect of overall well-being. Despite its global prevalence, vision impairment and eye care remain largely absent from international health discourse and national health strategies. This article sheds light on the current state of eye health awareness and services, focusing on the situation in Kenya. It emphasizes the role of community health volunteers (CHVs) and proposes strategies to integrate eye care into the healthcare system.
Globally, over 1 billion people suffer from preventable vision impairment, yet discussions on eye health are scarce. Astonishingly, the UN World Report on Vision reveals that 191 out of 194 country health strategies do not mention eye care, further underlining the lack of attention given to this critical issue. This neglect is particularly pronounced in low- and middle-income countries, which have limited access to eye care services, further worsening the burden of vision impairment.
Kenya’s pursuit of Universal Health Coverage (UHC) by 2030 highlights the necessity of integrating all healthcare sectors, including eye care, into the national health system. However, the lack of eye health knowledge among CHVs presents a major challenge. CHVs are tasked with delivering preventive and promotive health services at the community level. As a result, there is a significant gap in eye health awareness among community members.
During my routine household visits, I encountered an illuminating example that underscored the pervasive lack of eye health awareness within communities. A child, aged just 11 years, was the focus of my attention due to his complaints of painful, itchy eyes. Upon further inquiry and engaging with the child’s mother, an alarming perspective emerged. The mother swiftly dismissed the concerns, attributing the child’s complaints to a mere pretense of illness.
Upon reflection, I recognized that this unsettling response could be attributed to the lack of knowledge surrounding eye health. In this particular community, the prevailing belief seemed to dictate that medical attention was warranted only when individuals experienced incapacitating pain that severely hamper their daily activities. The incident underscored the deep-rooted misconceptions surrounding eye health, which hindered even the consideration of seeking medical intervention for less acute but equally crucial eye problems.
The limited number of trained eye care service providers in Kenya and the concentration of eye care services in referral hospitals lead to overcrowding and extended waiting times. The cost of eye care services further hinders accessibility for economically disadvantaged individuals. The financial burden is a significant factor. It combines with the need to prioritize work over health, which deters people from seeking timely eye care. This often culminates in intensified complications and avoidable blindness. Cultural beliefs and stigma surrounding eye health discourages individuals from seeking help. Myths about eye problems and glasses contribute to unnecessary suffering and hinder progress in addressing eye health.
A multifaceted approach is crucial to bridge the gap in eye health awareness and services. Comprehensive training for CHVs on eye care is pivotal in ensuring that eye health becomes an integral component of their community health efforts. Actively discussing eye health during interactions with community members empowers CHVs to disseminate knowledge, challenge stigma, and dispel myths surrounding eye problems and glasses.
Additionally, establishing a robust referral system, ranging from primary healthcare facilities for screening to tertiary care for complex cases, is essential for efficient and effective eye care delivery. Equipping local health facilities with the necessary eye care infrastructure and personnel not only enhances service delivery but plays a vital role in curbing avoidable blindness within communities.
Fostering preventive and promotive health practices is crucial for enhancing overall well-being, including eye health. Similar to other health conditions, regular education campaigns should underscore the significance of eye health within communities. Ensuring that national health insurance funds are up to date can alleviate the financial burden of eye care services for individuals from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.
In summation, the lack of global attention and awareness towards eye health is a pressing concern that demands immediate action. Integrating eye care into national health strategies, extensive training of CHVs on eye health, and fostering preventive and promotive practices can significantly improve eye health outcomes. Stakeholders, including governments, international organizations, and local communities, must recognize the pivotal role eye health plays in overall well-being. They should work collectively to eliminate preventable vision impairment and blindness.