The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) serves as an ideal platform for discussing and addressing global challenges, from poverty and climate change to sustainable development. However, in recent years, it has emerged as a crucial platform for addressing global health issues and advocating meaningful action.
Lately, Bangladesh has leveraged its position at the UN to draw attention to the importance of public health issues. Among these, eye health gained prominence, with Bangladesh taking a leadership role in drawing international attention to this critical matter. Bangladesh Permanent Mission to the UN in New York has been co-leading the agenda on eye health with the Missions of Antigua and Barbuda and Ireland since 2018. It has actively participated in discussions on universal health coverage and sustainable development, emphasizing the critical role of eye health in achieving these goals. Bangladesh’s representatives have not only highlighted the progress made within the country but have also called for greater international cooperation to tackle eye health challenges on a global scale.
In a significant move, Bangladesh facilitated the first-ever resolution on eye health at the UNGA titled, ‘Vision for Everyone: Accelerating Action to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals’ which was adopted unanimously on 23 July 2021 with co-sponsoring by 115 countries.
The significance of eye health
Eye health is a fundamental component of overall well-being and socioeconomic development. Vision impairment is a universal challenge that most people will experience in their lifetime. Avoidable vision impairment or blindness can be both a cause and a consequence of entrenched inequalities. Impaired vision can limit access to education, employment, and economic opportunities, perpetuating cycles of poverty in many regions of the world. More than 2 billion people around the globe are either suffering from blindness or lower vision and 1.1 billion people have vision impairment that are avoidable through cost-effective treatment and prevention. Unfortunately, 90% of them live in low-income settings where access to quality eye care is scarce.
World Sight Day is a stark reminder of the importance of eye care. This year’s theme- Love Your Eyes at Work– focuses on the importance of eye care at workplaces. The hope is that the awareness activities on this day will empower the workforce by enabling them to understand their health rights, as well as educating employers, governments, and other stakeholders worldwide about the importance of sight.
Bangladesh’s commitment to eye health
Avoidable blindness is one of the major public health problems in Bangladesh too. About 1% of people aged over 40 years are blind and millions more are suffering from refractive errors and low vision. Among them, 80% are cataract victims which is avoidable and treatable through simple and cost-effective surgical intervention.
Bangladesh has long been at the forefront of addressing eye health challenges. It launched the national program for the prevention of visual impairment and blindness in 1980. A nationwide program was undertaken involving GO-NGO-private partnership for the prevention and control of blindness with special emphasis given for the control of childhood blindness. Later, as a signatory to the global initiative, ‘Vision 2020’, Bangladesh formulated a National Eye Care Program (NECP). As a result of its early action, the country has made remarkable progress in reducing blindness and visual impairment.
To further strengthen the ongoing efforts, the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina decided to integrate primary eye care in the portfolio of primary health care services by setting up community vision centres. It has so far established 135 community vision centers to cater free-of-cost eye care for the poor and marginalized people. The centers are equipped with basic eye care ability having trained nurses for this job supported by teleconsultation with ophthalmologists. These efforts have improved the quality of life for millions of underserved populations through the provision of comprehensive eye care services.
Bangladesh’s leadership at the UN
Bangladesh joined the UN Friends of Vision group formed on World Sight Day in 2018 and became a co-chair of the group. UN Friends of Vision continued to educate countries on the links between Vision and the SDGs and drive the integration of primary eye care into universal health coverage. At Bangladesh’s behest, the group organized, for the first time, a free eye screening camp at the UN secretariat for the delegates and the staff of the UN on World Sight Day, 2019. The camp was a huge success with an attendance of over 400 staff and delegates. It has been continuing since then on the occasion of the World Sight Day, except in 2020 and 2021 due to Covid-19 disruption.
Despite the fact that vision impairment and blindness is pervasive, the maldistribution of resources across the world and within borders, means that the experience of living with vision loss does, in fact, discriminate. This is a grim picture that calls for transformative action. And a first ever UN resolution on vision care finally dawned.
By championing this resolution, Bangladesh underscores the critical importance of a good vision for achieving sustainable development and socioeconomic progress. Bangladesh’s leadership in promoting eye health at the UNGA has yielded several important outcomes:
- Increased global awareness: Bangladesh’s efforts have contributed to raising global awareness about the importance of eye health and highlighted the urgency of addressing eye health as a global priority.
- Resource mobilization: The initiative has encouraged IFIs and donors to allocate targeted finances toward addressing eye health for LMICs. It also urges the member states to mobilize domestic resources to contribute to global efforts to reach, by 2030, at least 1.1 billion people who have a vision impairment and currently do not have access to the eye care services that they need.
- Policy Advocacy: Bangladesh’s advocacy has led to policy initiatives that aim to integrate eye health into broader healthcare and development agendas, e.g. reporting the status of eye care in country-led evaluation at the UN to assess progress towards achieving SDGs.
- Knowledge and technology Sharing: It calls for capacity building by sharing knowledge on successful models and best practices. It encourages countries to replicate achievements in the field of eye health, particularly by transferring technology in eye care and assistive devices.
- Collective action: This initiative paves the way for collective action to build an international campaign on eye health towards the fulfillment of the SDGs and to leave no one behind by 2030.
The UNGA has proven to be an effective platform for Bangladesh to lead the charge on public health issues. Bangladesh’s leadership of the Vision Care resolution is a pivotal step in putting the spotlight on eye health at the highest international level. Leveraging its experiences, successes, and commitments, Bangladesh has not only improved eye health within its borders but has also contributed to the global effort to combat preventable blindness and visual impairment. As the world continues to grapple with healthcare challenges, the actions taken by Bangladesh serve as a shining example of how a dedicated nation can make a significant global impact and guide others to prioritize and accelerate actions for the vision health as a vital component of the SDGs.
To celebrate Bangladesh’s success, let us pledge on the ‘World Sight Day’ to learn best practices on distance from screens, take a break to exercise long and near distance vision, and maintain health and safety in dangerous environments where eyes can be damaged.
Dr. M. Monwar Hossain, PhD
Bangladesh Ambassador to Myanmar
Facilitator and lead negotiator of Vision Care resolution at the UN
Former Deputy PR of Bangladesh to the UN, New York