27.05.2011

Inventor leading eyecare revolution in Africa

Inventor leading eyecare revolution in Africa

One of the things we often take for granted in the Western world is the availability of decent optical healthcare. In many less fortunate parts of the world, access to basic routine eye tests or a pair of contact lenses is nothing but a dream that will never come true. Or will it? If one British inventor gets his way, millions of African children could be given the gift of good eyesight specially tailored to fit them for a lifetime.

Atomic physicist Professor Joshua Silver is working alongside the World Bank on a revolutionary project that could soon see him delivering 200 million pairs of self-adjusting spectacles to deprived communities across Africa. Users will be able to easily alter the glasses to their own personal prescription, without the help of an optician, to which few have access. This is arguably the best part of the scheme and what makes the idea a life-long sustainable solution.

"All users have to do is look at a reading chart and adjust the glasses until they can see letters clearly," Professor Silver told the Guardian, after last week he was shortlisted for an EU inventors' award at a special ceremony in Budapest. "Glasses like these are perfect for use in the third world. We can send them to schools where teachers can direct pupils to set their spectacles to suit each one's vision. It is as simple as that," he added.

Professor Silver believes that over a billon adults in developing countries would have been offered glasses or contact lenses had they been born in Britain. Left untreated as poor eyesight often is in these parts of the world, weak vision can seriously limit an individual's career and education prospects.

At the Hungarian ceremony, the professor revealed that he had first set about creating the spectacles as a hobby more than 20 years ago. "I was curious. I did it for fun," he told the newspaper. Like many great inventions, what Professor Silver came up with was an ingenious solution that couldn't be easier to apply. In a nutshell, he developed cheap eyewear with lenses that can be 'fine tuned' by their owner. He calls them "adaptive lenses".

The lenses basically consist of two thin, transparent membranes with silicone gel sandwiched between them. All the wearer needs to do is look at an eye chart and pump in more or less fluid to adjust the curvature of the lens, which in turn alters the prescription to correct their vision. "It is incredibly easy. You don't need an optician, just a little bit of basic instruction," he went on to tell the newspaper.

"Our tests, which have ranged from trials with pupils in rural schools in China to inner-city schools in Boston, have found that more than 95 per cent of adolescents can handle these glasses quite easily and set their own prescription without problem. We call this process self-refraction, and it offers enormous potential for use in the developing world. We have already supplied 40,000 of these glasses to individuals in 20 countries," Professor Silver added.

But by the inventor's own admission, the special glasses have a couple of disadvantages. First of all, the cost of making them is around £15 a pair, which Professor Silver believes will need to come down to something nearer £1 if the target of 200 million youngsters is to be hit. And secondly, they are not the most attractive of things. He explained: "If we want teenagers to wear them, we will have to make them less obtrusive and more stylish. In essence, we want to make them look just like standard glasses. I am very hopeful we will succeed." 

by Martin Burns


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