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Open Access Research article

What is the global burden of visual impairment?

Lalit Dandona* and Rakhi Dandona

Author Affiliations

Health Studies Area, Centre for Human Development, Administrative Staff College of India, Hyderabad, India

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BMC Medicine 2006, 4:6  doi:10.1186/1741-7015-4-6

Published: 16 March 2006

Abstract

Background

A recent estimate by the World Health Organization (WHO) suggests that 161 million persons worldwide have visual impairment, including 37 million blind (best-corrected visual acuity less than 3/60 in the better eye) and 124 million with visual impairment less severe than blindness (best-corrected acuity less than 6/18 to 3/60 in the better eye). This estimate is quoted widely, but because it is based on definitions using best-corrected visual acuity, uncorrected refractive error as a cause of visual impairment is excluded.

Methods

We reviewed data from population-based surveys of visual impairment worldwide published 1996 onwards that included presenting visual acuity, and estimated the proportion of visual impairment caused by uncorrected refractive error in different sub-regions of the world. We then extrapolated these data to estimate the worldwide burden of visual impairment including that caused by uncorrected refractive error.

Results

The total number of persons with visual impairment worldwide, including that due to uncorrected refractive error, was estimated as 259 million, 61% higher than the commonly quoted WHO estimate. This includes 42 million persons with blindness defined as presenting visual acuity less than 3/60 in the better eye, and 217 million persons with less severe visual impairment level defined as presenting visual acuity less than 6/18 to 3/60 in the better eye, 14% and 75% higher, respectively, than the WHO estimates based on best-corrected visual acuity. Sensitivity analysis, taking into account the uncertainty of the proportion of visual impairment caused by refractive error, revealed that the number of persons in the world with visual impairment due to uncorrected refractive error could range from 82 to 117 million.

Conclusion

The actual burden of visual impairment worldwide, including that caused by uncorrected refractive error, is substantially higher than the commonly quoted WHO estimate that is based on best-corrected visual acuity. We suggest that the indicative estimate of 259 million persons with visual impairment worldwide, which includes 42 million blind with visual acuity less than 3/60 in the better eye, be used for further planning of the VISION 2020 initiative instead of the often quoted 161 million estimate that includes 37 million blind.