Self-Adjustable Glasses for Third World

Sept. 6, 2000 -- To Western eyes, Joshua Silver’s round-lensed glasses may make him look a little owlish, but in developing countries where optometrists and prescription lenses are rare, they could be a sight for a million, maybe even a billion, sore eyes.

Silver, 54, an atomic physicist at Oxford University in England, has invented a pair of spectacles a user can adjust him or herself according to the type of vision correction needed, thus eliminating the need for eye examinations and lens-grinding.

“In America you take for granted getting glasses in drug stores and shopping malls, sometimes within an hour,” says Silver. “But that is hardly the case in the developing world.”

Brings Life Into Focus

Within two minutes, a wearer of Silver’s glasses can bring each eye into focus on near or distant objects, by adding or subtracting the amount of silicon oil held in a thin reservoir sandwiched between the plastic lenses. Once focused, the user cuts off the oil supply and the glasses are set for seeing.

These adjustable specs can help about 90 percent of the population needing vision correction, he says.

But while many eye-care experts and the British government support Silver’s effort, some say getting his product to the developing world at a reasonable cost will not be easy. Others worry his glasses may actually increase the chance of debilitating eye diseases, such as river blindness, since the wearers would require fewer examinations.

Vision Without Need for Professionals

Silver started his own company, called Adaptive Eyecare in 1996 to manufacture and market the glasses. With them, he says, residents of remote villages would not have to travel to regional hospitals or clinics for glasses if a distribution system was set up. The glasses could provide vision correction for near- and far-sightedness at plus or minus six diopters — a wide range of lens curvature for vision correction.

Before his glasses became available, other Third World approaches included distributing second-hand glasses. But sorting through the lenses, giving them out and providing examinations still required significant manpower, explains Silver.

For the past four years, he and a team have performed field tests of his glasses in South Africa and Ghana with some 300 people, with funding from the British government’s Department of International Development and other sources. A trained person gave eye exams to the locals and explained to the users how the glasses work.

“People are capable of setting their own power of the lens with reasonable accuracy,” Silver says. Next, his company is planning a trial of a few hundred people to monitor how they work over a period of time.

Ghana Interested

The government of Ghana was so impressed with the do-it-yourself specs, they plan to order almost 100,000 over the next several years to help support literacy programs in communities and villages, Silver says. The problem with those programs in Ghana, says Agnes Ado-Mensah, a Ghanaian who has studied them, is that 20 percent of the learners cannot see well, and so, drop out.

“Joshua’s innovative spectacles have been identified by the Ministry of Education as more appropriate and affordable to the learners with eyesight problems involved in the literacy program,” Ado-Mensah says.

New Technology in Third World Hard

The need for vision correction in the developing world is “profound,” says Jay Enochs, emeritus dean of the School of Optometry at the University of California in Berkeley, who has attempted to bring a simple, low-vision test to India.

But adopting a new technology is never easy, he says. “The invention of a test, a new device, a treatment or a surgery is a big step,” Enochs says. “But it is only the very, very first step.”

Victoria Sheffield, spokeswoman for the International Eye Foundation, in Bethesda, Md., applauds the invention, but wonders how the $12 to $15 wholesale price will be affordable to the poor in the Third World. Moreover, money spent on distributing the glasses may take away from funds used to treat glaucoma, cataracts and other eye afflictions.

Prices Will Go Down in Time

Silver says his initial price may be high, as with all new technologies, but with improvements in production and efficiency in manufacturing, he expects the prices can be brought down to $1 to $2 over time. His company, which has a small plant in London, is seeking funding to help step-up production.

Moreover, he says the glasses should not be a replacement for eye care, but are a better solution than nothing for the estimated hundreds of millions of people in the developing world who need vision correction.

On Dec. 14, 1999, Prime Minister Tony Blair recognized the glasses among 1,000 other innovative technologies new for the millennium. Silver developed the prototype for the lenses over a period of almost 15 years tinkering around in his laboratory, he says. He still carries them around with him for show and tell.

He has other products in the works for Western-markets too, such as glasses that can change for baby boomers’ weakening eyes as they move from computer to television screen.“Americans would probably be willing to pay a good price for their convenience,” Silver says.