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Recycled glasses not the solution for developing communities

You might feel good sending your old reading glasses to a developing country. But a recent international study involving collaborating partners in the Vision CRC suggests it is far better to give $10 for an eye examination and a new pair of glasses if you want to help someone in desperate need, and it is far better for building capacity in these communities.

The study, recently published in the journal Optometry and Vision Science, found that only 7% of a test sample of 275 recycled glasses were useable and that this pushed the delivery cost to over $US 20 per pair. There are a wide range of ready-made glasses available, which can be supplied for around half the cost. Over 600 million people are unnecessarily blind or vision impaired globally simply because they need an eye examination and appropriate glasses.

Dr David Wilson, a researcher at Vision CRC and Research Manager Asia-Pacific for the Brien Holden Vision Institute and head author on the paper, says "that although the intention is good, recycled glasses are not a cost-saving method of correcting refractive error and should be discouraged as a strategy for eliminating uncorrected refractive error in developing countries. “While this is not the first argument against the use of recycled glasses there has been no accurate costing of their delivery,"€ he said.

Only 7% of the 275 recycled glasses analysed in the study were suitable for use he said. “The relatively small proportion of useable glasses contributed to the high societal cost of delivering recycled glasses, which was found to be US$20.49, close to twice that of supplying ready-made glasses,"€ Dr Wilson added.

Co-author of the paper Professor Brien Holden, CEO of the Vision CRC and Brien Holden Vision Institute, says that recycled glasses have a feel-good attractiveness to those that hand in their old glasses. “Although well intentioned, recycled glasses will neither suit many of those affected by the most common forms of vision impairment, nor provide a cost-saving solution to the problem,” he said.

"They are expensive to sort, clean and deliver and, in addition, the power of the lenses in a pair of glasses can differ greatly, meaning that a pair of recycled glasses is rarely the same as another person’s prescription," Professor Holden said. "This research is extremely valuable in understanding the most efficient method to utilise the limited funding and resources currently available to address this massive need.

Dr Wilson said a preferable method is to provide an eye exam and use ready-made or, even better, inexpensive custom-made glasses. Making the glasses locally helps build sustainable supply and fitting services in communities in need. “The peak international body in blindness prevention efforts, the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness (IAPB), recommends that groups involved in eye care should not accept donations of recycled glasses nor use them in their programmes,"€ he said.

"€œQuality glasses are now being delivered in developing communities through the training of skilled personnel to conduct eye examinations and dispense ready-made glasses or by trained people such as spectacle technicians to custom make glasses,” he said. "€œNot only does this provide quality eye care, it enhances local capacity and helps build sustainable eye care systems,"€ he said.

"€œIf people would like to contribute to this global effort I would urge them to support organisations that are involved in the Vision 2020 initiative of the World Health Organization and IAPB, including the Brien Holden Vision Institute, that are working to eliminate avoidable blindness and vision impairment worldwide."€

The paper "€˜Real Cost of Recycled Spectacles"€™ appeared in the March 2012 edition of Optometry and Vision Science.

Read the article on this study that appeared in The New York Times.
Listen to a recent ABC Radio National interview with Dr Wilson here.

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