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Smartphone app can help beat blindness in poorest nations

Cheap and easy to use eye exam kit developed in the UK has huge potential

Mark Gould

Thursday, 15 August 2013

A smartphone app which uses the phone's camera to scan the lens for cataracts could become a cheap and easily portable way to help prevent or cure blindness in developing countries.

The World Health Organization says 285 million people are blind or visually impaired and it is thought that four out of five cases could be prevented or cured if doctors can find them.

Dr Andrew Bastawrous, an MRC Research Fellow at the International Centre for Eye Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, thinks he has found a way to do that.

He is trialling a smartphone app called Peek (Portable Eye Examination Kit) on 5,000 people in Kenya. It uses the camera to scan the lens of the eye for cataracts.

A shrinking letter which appears on screen is used as a basic vision test. And it uses the camera's flash light to illuminate the retina, to check for disease. A patient's records are stored on the phone, their exact location is recorded using GPS and the results can be emailed to doctors.

The phone is relatively cheap, costing around £300 rather than using bulky eye examination equipment costing in excess of £100,000.

The images taken on the phone during the tests are being sent back to Moorfield's Eye Hospital in London.

The pictures are being compared with ones taken with conventional eye examination gear, which has been transported around the region in the back of a van.

The study is not complete, but the research team say the early results are promising and that 1,000 people have received some form of treatment so far.

"What we hope is that it will provide eye care for those who are the poorest of the poor," Dr Bastawrous told the BBC.

"A lot of the hospitals are able to provide cataract surgery which is the most common cause of blindness, but actually getting the patient to the hospitals is the problem.

"What we can do using this is the technicians can go to the patients to their homes, examine them at their front doors and diagnose them there and then."

The idea is already attracting praise even at an early stage.

Peter Ackland, from the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness says the Peek tool is huge potential as it can be used by relatively untrained people. The greatest need is poor countries where 90% of the world's blind and visually impaired people live. Mr Ackland believes Africa and northern India will be the places most likely to benefit as ophthalmologists and optomotetrists there are operating at around 30-40% of their capacity.

Picture credit: Barnaby Chambers / Shutterstock.com

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