Vision’s Role in China’s Future

In October 2015, the government of China abandoned its decades-long one-child policy in an effort to balance population development and address the challenge of an ageing country. While it might be too early to determine the long-term effects of this decision, prioritizing vision health will undoubtedly become a necessity in the near future.

Recent studies suggest that half the world’s people will be myopic by the year 2050, with China trending upward at 65 percent of its citizenry. The most populous country in the world, now with an even greater opportunity for a population explosion, will assuredly suffer from this vision crisis if we do not intervene in a big way.

According to the World Health Organization, 30 percent of the world’s children today experience vision problems that have significant impact on their long-term health, school performance, and emotional and social development. Yet in rural China, only one in six children who need vision correction actually have the eyeglasses they need to see clearly. In fact, in one study, 30 percent of the children who needed vision correction refused free eyeglasses due to objection by the head of the household, the child’s refusal due to perceived need, or the stigma of wearing eyeglasses – most commonly seen in young girls. That’s the bad news.

But the Good News is Far More Promising

In 2006, 19,000 primary school students in rural China from 165 schools were offered free eyeglasses. Findings suggest that those who accepted (and wore) the eyeglasses achieved higher test scores than those who refused. Additionally, a 2012 study in rural primary schools in China showed that students who wore spectacles for one year earned higher test scores, equivalent to six months of additional schooling. It also suggested that children who had historically under-performed in school benefited the most from vision correction. These studies and others speak volumes.

Last June, I had the opportunity to highlight healthy vision at a press conference in China where government leaders, educators, social workers, and media joined together on the topic. We heard from presenters who shared the current state of vision in China and what steps must be taken to improve the landscape. Perhaps the most interesting part of this conference was a round table discussion where participants shared insights about vision’s role in the current economy, education system, and the future of China.

I’m reminded of one participant who shared details about the work of a close colleague. Her peer surveyed parents, students, and teachers and found that children from families with only one child have a 10% higher rate of myopia than those where there are multiple children. These findings are aligned with our understanding of the environmental rise of myopia, as technology and other factors surpass purely genetic causes.

Over the coming years, it will be fascinating to see the role that vision will play in this public health phenomenon. As myopia and the population increase exponentially, it’s imperative that we educate governments and communities about visual solutions that could impact China’s future. Let’s continue Giving Vision a Voice!