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Johannesburg - Poor literacy and reading levels and the high school drop-out rate in South African schools aren’t always caused by a failing education system.

Hundreds of thousands of the country’s pupils can’t read and write properly not because their teachers are under-qualified or they don’t have the required learning material, but because they have undetected visual impairment.

Professor Kovin Naidoo, global programmes director at the Brien Holden Vision Institute, an international non-profit eye-care organisation, said 5 percent of the country’s children had undetected and avoidable visual impairment.

“We’re fortunate that in South Africa the prevalence is not as high as in countries like China and India. In our context, (eye-care) services are so limited that many of the children who have problems can’t access services, so there’s a huge backlog.”

Eye problems mean that these children can’t see what’s written on the blackboard or read from a textbook.

Primary school pupils especially take longer than usual to develop the skill to write.

Naidoo said falling behind in their schoolwork destroyed these children’s confidence and they shied away from participating in class.

“It affects their academic performance, and in the long term it impedes their academic and employment prospects.”

Naidoo said that even when a child’s eye problem was picked up and they got a referral to buy spectacles, many families found the cost of new glasses – which varied between R300 and R400 – too high.

“The cost is a limitation to lots of people. Unfortunately, if a child is not helped it impacts on other aspects of their lives.

“It’s important to realise that it’s not just about education, but the quality of life.”

Naidoo said that for this problem to be resolved awareness about eye care needed to be raised among parents.

“Parents fear that when their children wear glasses, their eyesight will get worse.”

Naidoo said the government needed to step in to assist parents who couldn’t afford to buy spectacles.

“If you can’t afford it, the onus is on the government – especially for children – to step in and supply.”

Naidoo said research showed that globally the estimated loss of income due to people with visual impairments was $290 billion (R2.5 trillion) per annum.

He said the price of assisting families of children with eye problems was a small price to pay compared to what it would cost the state when these children grew up with their visual problems unattended to.

“We may not pay now, but it will cost us, and we’ll have to pay.”

Naidoo said nationally, more than 13 million South Africans needed vision correction. But accessing the small number of optometrists working in the public sector was a huge problem.

“Without an eye examination and the correct treatment, individuals are more likely to fall out of employment and education. The obvious cost is not just to the family, but also to the wider community, where lack of employment and education contributes to the downward spiral of economic instability.”

Naidoo said of the people who needed vision correction, the public-health system provided only 15 to 20 percent with the necessary treatment.

He said the global cost-effective trend to rectify this for school-going children was to provide comprehensive health care services in schools.

“Children need to be screened, not just for eye care, but for their general health.”

He said the challenge here was to put in “real resources” to make it happen.

The Integrated School Health Programme – launched by President Jacob Zuma and Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi in October last year – is such an initiative.

The programme intends allowing pupils access to a host of health services, which include eye care, immunisation, oral health, and sexual and reproductive health, at schools. In each phase, each pupil will be assessed once by a school health team, led by a professional nurse.

Motsoaledi said at the launch that mobile clinics for the pilot phase of the school health programme would be distributed in 10 districts where the National Health Insurance (NHI) plan was piloted.

“NHI is the re-engineering of primary health care – it focuses on preventive measures. Presently our health system is a curative model, where we wait for people to get sick.

“There are 12 million pupils. We can’t wait for them, in our wrong curative model, to get sick and only then take them to hospital. We want them to get the help in school.”

The Star