Guest Blogger: Stephen Bunnell

Climate Change, Blindness, and Poverty: A Public Health “Butterfly Effect”

by Stephen Bunnell


About the blogger: Stephen Bunnell is a graduate of the Monterey Institute of International Studies (M.A., Class of ’08)

In a 2014 interview with Business Insider, internationally-renowned astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson famously quipped, “Don’t worry, Earth will survive climate change — we won’t.” Dr. Tyson’s prophetic statement rings true today, as health problems caused by phenomena like increased UV radiation continue to spike worldwide. One of the most insidious and damaging effects that global climate change is having upon the human race is the worldwide epidemic of preventable blindness. An estimated 39 million people worldwide are blind, with 90% of them living in developing countries. Even more tragically, 80% of these cases result from preventable or treatable conditions, like cataracts, strabismus, or diabetic retinopathy.

Here’s an even more sobering fact: every minute, somewhere in the world, a child goes blind. Every sixty seconds, a child is affected, and they will live their life in darkness if they don’t get the treatment they need. The most common cause of blindness by far is cataracts, accounting for almost 50% of all cases. Many of these cases result directly or indirectly from exposure to UVA light, a component of UV radiation. As the Earth’s ozone layer becomes further depleted, more UVA gets through the atmosphere and causes damage to organic tissue. As the UVA enters our eyes, it causes strands of protein to unravel and cloud the lens, thus causing cataracts. Other eye conditions that may lead to blindness have been linked to increased UVA exposure as well, including pterygium, keratoconus, photokeratitis, photoconjunctivitis, and many, many more.

Now, if you’re lucky enough to live in a developed country where you can get affordable, safe, and effective eye care, you may be saying to yourself, “That’s really sad and terrible, but how does that affect me?” The answer is the way in which blindness can lead to (or exacerbate) poverty. As many as 90% of blind people worldwide lose their ability to work and provide for their families. Children affected by blindness and low vision are unable to go to school and get an education. Grandparents who lose their vision can often no longer care for themselves, and pose an economic and physical burden on their families.

Recent estimates suggest that more than $8 billion is lost from the world economy every year due to preventable blindness! That’s a huge number, especially when taking into account how small many developing countries’ budgets happen to be. As preventable blindness creates or worsens an economic burden on developing countries, incidences of violent crime, terrorist activities, and avoidable conflicts between nations become increasingly likely. Most international security experts tend to agree: if more opportunities for employment existed in developing countries, terrorist groups would have a difficult time recruiting new members.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy beneath all of this is the fact that so many eye conditions that lead to blindness are easily treatable, and for very little money. The major barrier, unfortunately, is that throughout much of the developing world, access to even basic vision care is extremely limited. Countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, the largest country in sub-Saharan Africa, have over 80,000 men, women, and children suffering from blindness, but only a handful of ophthalmologists who can treat them. Even worse, most of those doctors live and work predominantly in the capital, Kinshasa. So most of the blind people living in rural areas and smaller cities would never have access to proper eye care, without help from outside the country.

This is why medical nonprofits are so important. The blind and vision-impaired of the developing world need outside help, if they are ever to see again. Ophthalmologists and other doctors can band together and volunteer their services to those who need them the most. Thanks to their efforts, fathers and mothers will be able to go back to work and provide for their families. Children will be able to get the education they need to escape the vicious cycle of poverty. Grandparents will be able to see their grandchildren for the first time, and will no longer be a burden on their families.

Global climate change, unfortunately, is an immensely complex issue that is difficult to fully grasp, much less solve. Hopefully, before long, the major carbon-producing nations in the world will embrace green energy and work together to stem the tide of rising average global temperatures. But until then, one thing that everyone fortunate enough to live in the developed world can do, is to support international nonprofits who work day and night to alleviate the damage that climate change has upon the most defenseless and vulnerable members of the human race. Doctors and other medical professionals, consider volunteering your time and skills to nonprofits that provide health care access to those who would otherwise not have it. Lay persons who have a dollar or two to spare, think about donating something to an international charity that you trust.

Above all, remember how lucky you are if you live in a developed country. You have access to the miracles of modern medicine that most people in the world lack. You are shielded from the damage caused by climate change in a way that most humans today are not. If humanity is going to survive global climate change, it will be because the wealthy countries of the world decided to work together to extend their advantages with the rest of humanity.




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