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Kenyans stare at blindness amid high cost of eye treatment


Diana Langat, an optometrist examines Cybil Ambogo using an eye trial frame at Lapaire Glasses in Nairobi on May 15, 2021. PHOTO | BONFACE BOGITA | NMG

When Cybill Ambogo, 25, was diagnosed with myopia (short-sightedness), she was unaware of the struggle that lay ahead of her in seeking treatment.

She started experiencing sight problems in 2012, while she was a student.

“At school, I used to sit at the back of the class most of the time. I was perfectly normal, but then one day I couldn’t see the board well. I thought the problem could be solved by moving to the front of the class,” she says.

Her vision became weaker, especially in well-lit areas.

“I struggled to read white exam papers,” she says.

Ms Ambogo’s main challenge was accessing an ophthalmologist to diagnose her illness and the affordability of the services.

“I was a student in Kakamega, and there were no specialists near my home area. I had to travel to the neighbouring Kisumu to get medical attention, and even get a suitable pair of eyeglasses,” she says.

But even after seeing an eye specialist, it was still a challenge to afford suitable eyeglasses that cost Sh8,700.

Inadequate specialists and the high cost of treating eye problems have resulted in severe vision impairment in millions of people globally.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 28 million people worldwide have severe vision impairment, with 750,000 of them being Kenyans.

WHO data also indicates that of the 39 million people living with blindness in the world, 224,000 are Kenyans, with 80 percent of blindness in the country being due to causes that can be cured and prevented.

Data collected from Lapaire Group, a parent company of Lapaire Kenya, an eye-wear company based in Nairobi, indicates that eye problems detected amongst many people are preventable.

Eye doctors

According to the company which has tested over 60,000 people across the continent, though there is very limited data due to the lack of local studies, 60 percent of persons with visual impairment are due to refractive errors, hence this is preventable.

Types of refractive errors are myopia (nearsightedness), hyperopia (farsightedness), presbyopia (loss of near vision with age), and astigmatism, a problem caused by an error in the shape of the cornea.

Diana Lang’at, an optometrist in Nairobi, says different factors have contributed to the high number of Kenyans with an impaired vision which includes poverty, lack of public awareness of vision problems, difficult and expensive access to ophthalmologists and optometrists, high cost of frames and lens for eyeglasses, and the non-coverage of optical care by many employers.

The ophthalmologist per population ratio in Kenya is 1:600,000 which is below the WHO recommendation of 1:250,000.

In Africa, it is estimated that 550 million people need eyeglasses but that barely one percent have access to them.

Further, the Ministry of Health estimates that 15.5 percent of Kenyans need quality eye care services, ranging from surgeries, treatments, and spectacle corrections, but only about a fifth do have access to eye health services.

According to Ms Lang’at, affordability has led to many people sharing or buying eyeglasses from the streets.

“One thing people should understand is even though you might be diagnosed with the same problem as the next person, the extent of the problem usually differs, thus the lenses prescribed are usually very specific,” explains Ms Lang’at.

There also lies the immense danger of getting just any kind of glasses from the streets.

TV watching rule

“If you have wrong glasses, there is a possibility of developing permanent damage retinal detachment, a condition that could be irreversible. This could create an even more complicated situation that even with the best glasses, you still will be unable to see well,” she adds.

With this, experts recommend that the best and the cheapest way to prevent such complications is prevention.

“It all comes to lifestyle, and specifically what you eat. It is important to have a healthy diet, drink plenty of water for your eyes to remain in good shape,” she says.

The shift to working on computers and TV binge-watching also harm the eyes.

“For people who spend most of their time on computers or phones, I advise them to use the 20-20-20 rule, where after every 20 minutes of working on your gadget, you break for 20 seconds to focus on things that are 20 feet away,” she says.

According to Ms Lang’at, almost everybody will get a refractive error in their lifetime, eyeglasses affordability must be addressed.

“We also have to create awareness in our community about refractive errors and other sight problems, and their impact on people’s daily life,” she said.