Why women go blind more often than men


Why women go blind more often than men

On, October 14, 2021, we celebrated World Eye Health Day . Every year on the second Thursday in October, attention is drawn to the fact that eye care is still inadequate in a global context – especially in countries of the Global South. In Burkina Faso, for example, there are around 35 ophthalmologists for a population of around 20 million people. In Ethiopia, the population of 116 million people is cared for by just 160 ophthalmologists. In Austria, for comparison, there are around 1,000 ophthalmologists for eight million inhabitants.

What many people don’t know is that women are also disadvantaged when it comes to eye health. Women and girls make up more than half of all visually impaired people (55%) worldwide. This has mainly social reasons. They have less influence in families and often do not have the means to travel. Their mostly low social status ranks them behind the male family members, even when it comes to their health.

Gender equitable eye health
Together with local employees, Light for the World improves health care in particularly low-income regions of Africa. The new project “Gender-Equitable Eye Health for All” aims to increase the number of girls and women receiving treatment in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia and Mozambique.

Light for the world, Irene Ruhswurm
(c) Light to the World

Thanks to the support of many donors from Austria, several eye clinics have already been set up and professionally equipped. Light for the World trains local workers and supports health workers in their specialization in ophthalmology.

Ophthalmologist Irene Ruhswurm has been involved with the aid organization for several years now, is a member of the board and has already been involved in several projects on site. We spoke to her about the difficult situation of visually impaired women and girls in the Global South:

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What are the most common causes of severe ametropia or blindness?

Irene Ruhswurm: In the countries of the Global South, the most common cause is cataracts. This is due to the fact that medical care is usually very poor, which is why patients can only be operated on late. With us, cataracts are usually not an issue, you go to the ophthalmologist, usually recognize it at an early stage and have an operation. In fact, it is the most common operation in this country (120,000 operations) and takes little longer than a visit to the hairdresser – in Africa it looks completely natural.

Of course, the exact figures vary somewhat from country to country, but in principle you can imagine that there is one ophthalmologist for around one million people. In this country we have a ratio of about 1:1000. Infectious diseases are also a big problem, especially chlamydia, especially the so-called trachoma. It is transmitted very easily and unfortunately has not yet been eradicated. In principle, it is easy to treat because there are not enough resources, but unfortunately many people still go blind from it.

Glaucoma or glaucoma should also be mentioned: Due to an increase in intraocular pressure, there is a circulatory disorder of the optic nerve and then, as a result, visual field restrictions that can lead to blindness.

If you look at this specifically in relation to the gender ratio, then on average 55 percent are women who suffer from these diseases. This is because women are treated less often on average. The bad thing is, banal changes like myopia can mean that girls and women can no longer go to school, can no longer be used in the work process. In this respect, women are once again suffering more here.

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Why are women and girls treated less often? How exactly does this structural disadvantage manifest itself?

In the countries of the South, women still have a lower status than men. This places them at the bottom of the family. They are less mobile, for example are often not allowed to travel alone, and it is more difficult to get to health centers. Women are also more often unable to read and go to school less often, which in turn means that it is more difficult for them to obtain relevant information.

Of course, the costs are also an important point. The money is often in the hands of the men. The decision whether to spend it on health treatment is up to the man, which means that women often don’t have the opportunity to say, I’ll take the money and see what’s going on with my eyes.

Which countries are particularly badly affected?

In particular, the countries in the African sub-Saharan zone. The priority countries of Light for the World include Burkina Faso, Mozambique and Ethiopia as well as Kenya, Tanzania, Sudan and Uganda.

How exactly does light help the world ?

Our aim is to help people to help themselves. It’s very important to break this old cliché: “White people come to Africa, do their medicine there and then they go home again”. On the contrary, it’s about providing local help and, above all, strengthening the infrastructure at various levels. We have already been able to build a number of hospitals with the help of donors. A very important point is the training of ophthalmologists and health workers in general. We have already had great success with our projects in Burkina Faso and Mozambique. The local health authorities are always involved in everything we do, because at the end of the day everything should continue to run independently of us.

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Our local offices are also all staffed by locals. The corona crisis in particular has shown how important this is. After all, none of us could fly down for over a year. The overarching goal would of course be that we are no longer needed at all.

How was the work on site for you?

My first project trip went to Burkina Faso. I can still remember, I was so deeply impressed. Not just from the work, but also from the emotions you experience. For example, when someone has gone blind from cataracts and then the bandage comes off after the procedure and people suddenly see their friends and children again… that’s indescribable. Then you know what good you can do. At the same time, that’s also what’s depressing – to know that you could so easily help a number of people with an actually simple intervention, but in reality – at least for the moment – it’s just not possible.

I think it’s important that we all keep reminding ourselves of how good we are and remember to pass something on. Because if a lot of people get involved, at the end of the day you can still make a difference.

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