Development & Alumni Relations Office 

Ulverscroft Foundation and Queen's take on eye disease in China 

29 October 2015

Professor Nathan Congdon, the recently appointed Ulverscroft Chair of Global Eye Health at Queen’s, has met with the Chinese Ministry of Health in Beijing to urge the implementation of a national programme to hand out free and low-cost glasses.

The plan to distribute millions of spectacles to schoolchildren in China is aimed at dramatically improving educational achievement, especially in impoverished, rural areas.

The work of Professor Congdon and his team is being made possible by a gift of £800,000 from the UK visual-impairment charity, The Ulverscroft Foundation.

The proposed project will fund spectacles for millions of children in all 31 administrative areas of China and will cost around £100m over three years. It is envisaged that training for rural eye doctors in making measurements for glasses will also be included.

Traditionally, there has been a misconception in China that wearing glasses weakens the eyes, with the result that very few children wear them. Additionally, schools in many rural and poor areas tend to use blackboards more than textbooks, meaning that near-sighted children are not able to keep up with their lessons.

The proposal builds on years of research by Professor Congdon and his colleagues in China and at Stanford University into eye health in China and its effect on schoolchildren’s performance. His latest research study, ‘Seeing is Learning’, was the first published trial to examine whether giving out free spectacles could improve academic results.

Providing spectacles has a significant impact on education outcomes. The benefits were larger in areas where blackboards were used more frequently in the classroom, such as poorer areas that cannot afford textbooks. And a recently published trial has shown that simple incentives directed at teachers can double the rates of glasses wear among children needing them.

Professor Congdon from the Centre of Public Health at Queen’s said: “Our latest research really underlines the importance of handing out free glasses to children in China on a major scale. The problem is, if we don’t give them out, they won’t be worn in big enough quantities to make a difference. There are cultural reasons why glasses have not been worn in the past, and there are also financial reasons. We need to make sure that poorer families have access to free, or very cheap, glasses.

“But we also want to make sure that the regional hospitals can continue to sell glasses as this is an important revenue stream for them. We have also done research in China which proves that giving out free glasses will not impact on the sales of glasses – we need both approaches and they can be complementary. I am very optimistic that our proposal will be taken up by the Chinese authorities as the evidence is indisputable.”

David Owen, Chair of the Ulverscroft Foundation said: “The Ulverscroft Foundation is a small to medium-sized charity which helps visually impaired people and to this end we have funded substantial projects in Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, Bolivia, Australia and the Indian subcontinent. In addition we have funded a series of textbooks on eye surgery and eye disease in hot climates by eye surgeon John Sandford-Smith.

“A gift of this magnitude represents a significant proportion of our resources – this demonstrates our confidence in the team at Queen’s University and our desire to develop partnerships with organisations and institutions to make a greater impact on global eye health.”

Originally from Massachusetts in the USA, Professor Congdon lived with his family in China from 2006-2015 and speaks and reads fluent Chinese. Previously, he has helped design and evaluate eye care projects in Mongolia, Laos and Vietnam. He was educated at Johns Hopkins University and worked for many years at the John Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute. He now lives with his family in Lisburn, Northern Ireland. Among many awards and professional distinctions, he has received the Asia Pacific Academy of Ophthalmology’s highest recognition for blindness prevention work in 2009.

To find out more about supporting medical research at Queen’s visit the Development Office website or contact Helen Surgenor, (Head of Medical Fundraising), telephone 028 9097 1568.

For further information, contact Queen’s University Communications Officer Una Bradley on +44 (0)28 9097 5384, (Mon-Thurs). Alternatively, contact Senior Communications Officer Claire Kelly on +44 (0)28 9097 5391.

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