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Access to poor vision remains a global affliction

18 August 2022

Following the passing of Leonardo Del Vecchio, a titan of the eyewear industry and an entrepreneur who revolutionised the popularity and style of glasses, his legacy has rightly been celebrated. His success as a businessman – one of the last great survivors of Italian luxury fashion – and founder of one of the world’s most eminent eyewear brands, Luxottica (now EssilorLuxottica), is a tale of extraordinary success. At many times, against the odds.

But while Del Vecchio should undoubtedly be credited with destigmatizing the use of glasses and making them a sought-after fashion accessory, his success in transforming what is primarily a medical device into a highly desirable fashion item, had the secondary effect of entrenching the barriers to affordable vision care and glasses at the bottom of the income pyramid.

This tragic secondary effect is something I have been striving to correct for 20 years. There are 2.2 billion people around the globe who do not have access to vision correction or indeed affordable glasses. Del Vecchio’s legacy is an opportunity for us to ask questions about how we can combat this, what we should be doing and, importantly, who has the means to make real change in tackling what remains a scourge on our global consciousness.

Uncorrected poor vision remains the largest unaddressed disability in the world, with low and middle-income countries accounting for 90% of this. With the World Economic Forum warning that the pandemic has plunged an additional 160 million people globally into extreme poverty, improved vision care is now crucial to counteract this regression in international development gains.

This global economic disparity comes alongside an exacerbated trend of worsening eyesight, with rates of myopia (short-sightedness) increasing across all age-groups. Exponentially so in some. The increase in short-sightedness in children ages 6-13 in 2020 was up to three times greater than any year between 2015 and 2019.

Such debilitating but treatable vision problems have knock-on effects for individuals’ own personal lives, not least the ability to work productively and, in doing so, achieve financial independence.

In 2018, my campaign, Clearly – designed to shine a light on the issue of poor vision – worked with VisionSpring and Orbis to deliver the first randomised controlled trial on the impact of vision on productivity. The impact was staggering. A single pair of glasses drastically increased the test group’s overall productivity by 21%.

Attested to by the United Nations’ recent resolution to provide universal eyecare, clear vision underpins countless development objectives, from good health to decent work, gender equality and educational attainment. The result of the trial represented the largest ever recorded productivity increase from any health intervention.

Access to glasses is therefore the greatest prerequisite to achieving the ambition of SDGs, directing us towards a world that is better not for a subset of the population, but for everyone. Reaching these goals will require many incremental steps. Ensuring everyone has access to affordable vision correction should be at the forefront of this journey.

Together with some of the world’s leading academics, we are working on a number of research trials across the world to break through the lens of eyecare as a health issue and demonstrate how achieving vision correction can drive progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.

It is going to require a collective effort from governments, manufacturers and individuals to achieve this ambition. Del Vecchio made an immense fortune in repositioning glasses as a reflection of personal style. His glasses empire and those who now lead it, have the potential to change the world by helping to get affordable glasses to everyone.

That would be a legacy worthy of honour.