Health and Healthcare Systems

Climate change is the next big threat to eye health. Here's why

Green planet earth and blue human eye - Eco prospects

Climate change poses a great threat to eye health due to the impact of environmental factors. Image: Optical Prism Magazine

Dr. Princess Ifeoma Ike
Public Health Optometrist/CEO Princess Vision Eye Clinic Limited Abuja, Nigeria and Global Shaper, Abuja Hub, World Economic Forum
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This article is part of: Centre for Health and Healthcare

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  • Environmental factors, including climate change, have a strong influence on both human wellbeing and the stability of health systems.
  • The predicted rise in eye diseases and disruption of ocular health services will increase the number of people suffering vision impairment.
  • The impact of climate climate thus poses a far greater threat to eye health than conditions such as dry eye and allergies.

Climate change has a significant impact on our health, as well as the stability of healthcare systems, governments, and local communities. It is a global emergency that affects us all on a personal, community, national, and global scale.

Environmental degradation, air pollution, and climate change are having devastating effects all over the world, with vulnerable and low-income communities bearing the brunt of the burden.

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Climate change is exacerbating poverty and health disparities while impeding the global health community's efforts to achieve universal health coverage and eye care.

Why the eyes are especially at risk

The eyes are one of the most unique organs of the body susceptible to developing diseases resulting from environmental factors.

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Since they are exposed directly to the environment, any changes in weather, climate, dry conditions, and air pollution can affect them. Indeed, it is estimated that approximately 20% of cataract cases are the direct result of ultraviolet (UV) radiation overexposure.

Unchecked climate change causing further depletion of the ozone layer could therefore yield a significant jump in the incidence of cataracts and ocular diseases such as pterygium, acute photokeratitis, acute solar retinopathy (solar burn to the retina), photoconjunctivitis and various other serious ocular conditions.

How environmental change can impact the eyes

Early research has linked increased trachoma infection to high temperatures and low rainfall – both of which are exacerbated by climate change. Meanwhile, vitamin A deficiency is expected to rise as food insecurity rises as a result of changes in predictable rainfall patterns, which cause floods and droughts and affect crops.

Because of the loss of the ozone layer and increased UV rays that affect the eye, global warming can contribute to the onset and acceleration of cataracts. Furthermore, traffic-related air pollution is linked to severe allergic eye diseases, glaucoma, and age-related macular degeneration.

Extreme weather events will cause an increase in physical injuries, including eye injuries, and previous research has shown that people with visual impairments and disabilities are particularly vulnerable.

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Hurricanes and windstorms around the world have caused the temporary closure or destruction of medical facilities and supply chains for essential medical supplies such as medications, surgical supplies, eyeglasses and visual aids.

Climate change is expected to push already vulnerable populations into extreme poverty, further limiting their access to health care. The combination of predicted increases in eye disease and disruptions in eye care services will worsen the prevalence of vision impairment and blindness in our communities, with vulnerable populations being disproportionately affected.

This further highlights the immediate need to appreciate and understand the urgency of climatic changes and how detrimental they can be to eye health as well as communicate this urgency to change the behaviour of people, trigger a more inclusive response from world leaders, and prevent a catastrophic onset of eye diseases in the future.

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Impact on ocular health must be considered

The environment with which we interact influences population health. As this environment changes, so will the prevalence and severity of a wide range of ocular diseases.

As the world begins to better understand the effects of global temperature rises on our communities, it is critical to determine the climate risk as it relates to the eyes and visual system. Specifically, to what extent will we see an increase in these ocular diseases, and what impact will this have on a given patient population?

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Recent research has found a link between many ocular diseases and their surroundings, but more research is needed to fully understand these interactions. Future research should focus on assessing disease prevalence along lines of socioeconomic development and inequity caused by historic and ongoing colonialism because the effects of the climate crisis are expected to disproportionately affect marginalized communities.

In conclusion, for climate-related decision-making to be inclusive and all-encompassing, healthcare, especially eye care, should not be an afterthought. As governments and world leaders develop policies that have climate implications at the national and global levels, the healthcare sector should be adequately represented and involved in this process.

They must and should recognize the eye care sector as a productive investment rather than an expense.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Health and Healthcare SystemsNature and BiodiversityClimate Action
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