Lost focus in the fight vs blindness

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

We take our vision for granted. We make no big deal out of the fact that we can see things and people around us with 20-20 vision. But according to the Philippine Eye Research Institute, there are more than two million Filipinos who have visual impairments. That was, as of 2018.

Through its Philippine Eye Disease study, these many visually impaired Filipinos are composed of 1.11 million with cataract; 400,000 with uncorrected error of refraction; almost 300,000 with glaucoma; and 200,000 with maculopathy.

More than four million though are living with undiagnosed eye problems, according to the same study. Indeed, vision impairment and blindness rank among the major concerns in our country with a prevalent rate of 1.98 percent.

On a global scale, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported there at least 2.2 billion people who suffer various vision impairments. As medically defined, this is a condition in which the “functional limitation of the eye or visual system can manifest as reduced visual acuity, visual field loss, visual perceptual difficulties, or other visual disturbances.”

The WHO estimated in 2020 that the worldwide economic cost of blindness and moderate-to-severe vision loss could reach $411 billion. Beyond any monetary value, there are profound, lasting effects on one’s quality of life.

Every November of each year our country observes the Diabetic Eye Disease Month. As November winds down today, it is not too late to renew the call made during the World Sight Day by various stakeholder groups for the Department of Health (DOH) to implement the Prevention of Blindness Program (PBP) – a special DOH program designed to reduce the volume of avoidable visual impairments by ensuring equitable access to quality eye care services.

In fact, the DOH believes that 80% on the causes of blindness is avoidable.

Through DOH Administrative Order 2019-0055, the PBP was put together to align itself with the Universal Health Care Law. This program was supposed to provide comprehensive eye care services, integrating eye care within local health systems, and responding to emerging eye diseases such as diabetic retinopathy and glaucoma.

Other than knowing the DOH Eye Center is located at East Avenue Medical Center, there is not much public information campaign on how the poor and visually impaired Filipinos could avail of assistance from the PBP.

Dr. Diana Edralin, president of the Pharmaceutical and Healthcare Association of the Philippines (PHAP), has acknowledged the eye health package under the PBP “is comprehensive, with appropriate quality and cost-effective eye services ranging from prevention, promotion and healthcare, awareness, as well as the curative and rehabilitative aspects.” Dr. Edralin, who is also the general manager of Roche (Philippines) Inc., however, noted there have been obvious gaps in implementing the PBP.

“We can all come together in helping people living with visual impairment or visual problems by ensuring that the PBP has adequate support, especially the funding for outpatient services, and consistently implemented at the national level and across the different local government units,” she urged.

Aside from the PBP, there is also the National Vision Screening Act Program (NVSP) under Republic Act (RA) 11358. This law established a vision-screening program for children of kindergarten age in all public schools. Under RA 11358, the Department of Education (DepEd) is mandated to implement the vision-screening program intended to screen the eye vision of kindergarten students and identify eye problems at early childhood.

Signed by former President Rodrigo Duterte on July 31, 2019, teachers and health personnel will be trained and tapped to identify students with possible vision problems.?A vision screening kit that contains charts with symbols or numbers, occluders and transparent response key will be provided. In coordination with the DOH and the Philippine Eye Research Institute (PERI), the concerned agencies may recommend new modes or methods of vision screening based on trends and developments.

At least P10 million was appropriated under the budget of PERI of the University of the Philippines - Manila to cover the implementation of the program. This was to cover for the training and certification of teachers in conducting the NVSP. Private schools were encouraged to adopt its own vision screening system subject to the standards under the NVSP. The expenses for children studying in private schools shall be assumed by the concerned private schools.

Likewise, the same law mandated the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth) to develop a benefit package for the consultation and treatment of eye diseases of children.

Presumably, the DOH has provided for the NVSP in its annual budget since the passage of this law in the middle of 2019. Or, this was about half a year before the outbreak of the COVID pandemic in March 2019.

Unfortunately, these specific programs already funded by the government seemed to be lost somewhere in the order of priorities of the DOH and the DepEd as well.

The pandemic narrowed the DOH focus to the management of COVID-19 infections and the prevention of its spread – and rightly so. COVID took away a lot from us: Our loved ones, our sense of security and safety, and for many, even our means of livelihood. Even when we are trying to get into the so-called new normal, the virus remains a threat.

However, there are as many Filipinos who could have realized their full potential had they not been afflicted with eye and visual problems.

But part of our new reality is also precisely to broaden our views on the many other health threats that confront us as a people – and this includes eye health. A national policy for eye care, backed by the law and the administrative order, serve as the foundation for a comprehensive quality eye care service for all Filipinos.

The concerned officials only need to see the light that the government have lost focus on these twin programs in fighting blindness among Filipinos.

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