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A brief but spectacular take on eradicating avoidable blindness

At age 12, Andrew Bastawrous was told by his teachers that he was slow and inattentive. But the results of an eye exam explained why: he had very poor vision. Globally, as many as 2.5 billion people who need glasses don’t have them -- and are unable to reach their full potential as a result. Now an eye surgeon, Bastawrous shares his brief but spectacular take on eradicating avoidable blindness.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's estimated that as many as 2.5 billion people around the world need prescription eyeglasses, but don't have them. Untreated, we know poor vision keeps people from reaching their full potential.

    Tonight's Brief But Spectacular features an eye doctor looking for new ways to solve the problem.

  • Dr. Andrew Bastawrous:

    When I was 12 years old, I was told by my teachers that I was a bit slow and that I wasn't paying attention. And then I was taken for an eye test, where they found that I had really poor vision. And when I put on a pair of glasses, I saw that trees have leaves on them for the first time, and my life took a very different course as a consequence of something so simple.

    I was aware that the thing that happen to me with a pair of glasses may not have been true if I have lived somewhere else. And so I wanted to become a doctor, which I then became, and then I became an eye surgeon and with this burning desire to change this injustice.

    Worldwide, there's 2.5 billion people, so one in three who need a pair of glasses and can't get them. There's 36 million people who are blind, four in every five of whom shouldn't be, because their cause of blindness is curable.

    In 2011, I left my job as an eye surgeon in the U.K., and my wife and our 1-year-old son packed our bags and moved to Kenya. We went there because we wanted to really understand the needs of a large population. And to do it, we had to establish 100 eye clinics, and, in the course of doing so, just realized how big the scale of the problem was, but also how much potential there was to change lives if this were done differently.

    When I was working in the field in Kenya, I was taking 100,000 pounds' worth of eye equipment and a team of 15 people to understand why people couldn't see and what the causes were.

    What we then started to do as Peek was creating mobile technology that could do the same assessments, but in the hands of non-specialists. So, the first thing that we built was a vision test that could measure somebody's vision in any language.

    And then we built a tool that would sit on the phone which would allow you to see inside the eye, so you could see the back of the eye and understand why somebody can't see.

    When I was working in Kenya, it became apparent how many people had access to a mobile device. I would go to places that had no roads, no electricity and no water, but in those same places, people had a mobile phone.

    An incredible doctor said to me: "In the community that I work, there are children in the schools who can't see. And when I send my nurse from the hospital to go and see them, she finds them, but she spends all day in one school to find around 5 percent of the children with a problem. And I can no longer afford to send her because the clinic is too busy."

    So we said, why don't we train teachers to do the same thing? And so teachers started using our Peek Acuity app to measure vision, to get a simulation of what that child could see, and then it would automate a message to that child's parents, to the head teacher and to the hospital.

    So, suddenly, everybody knew that child existed with a solvable problem. The first time we trialed it, 25 teachers screened 21,000 children in just nine days.

    We then went on to scale that up to 300,000 children covering the entire district. The government of Botswana has shown incredible leadership and have committed to screen and treat every single schoolchild in the country, making them the first country in the world where an entire generation no longer have to suffer this problem.

    My name is Dr. Andrew Bastawrous, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on eradicating avoidable blindness.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So good to hear about that.

    And you can find more episodes of our Brief But Spectacular series at PBS.org/NewsHour/Brief.

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