Children taught to be eye health champions

Post date: 
Monday, 5 September 2016
Eye Heroes
Eye Heroes is the UK’s first child-led eye health awareness campaign that tackles the increasing problem of avoidable blindness. 
Set up in 2015 by Yusrah Shweikh, Ophthalmology Registrar at Moorfields, Manjul Rathee, a human-centred designer and Sonia Szamocki, a junior doctor, the Eye Heroes campaign trains children to become health champions, informing adults in their communities about eye health.
The campaign relies on volunteers and children to spread the eye health message. Children aged eight to 12 learn about the importance of having an eye test every one to two years in a free hour-long workshop that’s delivered in schools and after-school clubs. The workshops are delivered by local volunteers who, to date, have included orthoptists, junior doctors, teachers, parents and people suffering from avoidable sight loss. 
By spreading messages to adults in their local communities, children known as ‘Eye Heroes’ are able to overcome barriers including language and social isolation which vulnerable adults may face. Not only this, the campaign achieves a secondary aim of educating a whole generation of children about eye health at the same time.
Dr Shweikh brought together a team to develop the campaign, which is funded by the Moorfields Eye Charity, after seeing patients with sight conditions that could have been avoided easily if they had a routine eye test earlier.
She recently saw a lady in her 40s with end-stage glaucoma. The patient had a demanding job but had been too busy to get her eyes checked, even though she struggled to read documents at work. 

“Her eye pressure was three times greater than normal and the nerves connecting her eyes to her brain were 80 to 90 per cent damaged,” Dr Shweikh explained. ”Earlier detection of her condition through a routine eye check may have allowed us to intervene and save some of her sight.”

With limited public understanding of avoidable sight loss, setting up the project has had its challenges. However, support from enthusiastic volunteers, the Eye Health community and the grant received from Moorfields Eye Charity has enabled the roll out of Eye Heroes across the UK.
The team carried out a pilot in Bedford that started during National Eye Health Week in 2015, running workshops with the aim of influencing adults to get their eyes tested after coming in contact with our young eye health champions, ‘Eye Heroes’. Three months later, 126 people had gone to see their optician because of the campaign.  
With ever-increasing pressures on community and hospital eye services, as well as cuts to the health and social care budget as a whole, the need for effective campaigns targeting preventable sight loss is important.
Excluding the initial grant given by Moorfields’ Eye Charity to create the website, the project is economically sustainable. The Eye Heroes team have also found working with children to deliver the eye health message to be a big success.

Dr Shweikh, explained: “Children are incredibly effective health advocates, not only because of their enthusiasm but also their ability to access people who otherwise may not be reached by conventional awareness campaigns. People might wrongly assume there is an obligation to buy expensive products after an eye test. The role of optometrists as outstanding primary health service providers needs to be at the forefront of public understanding.” 

As well as gaining support in the UK, the campaign has also received interest from eye health professionals and volunteers internationally. 
“A highlight of our success in the last year,” the team reported, “came when Eye Heroes was featured in the London newspaper, the Evening Standard. We were also grateful to receive an award for best project addressing Outcome One of the UK Vision Strategy at the VISION 2020 UK conference. This year, we were also shortlisted for an Innovation award at this year’s Vision Pioneer Awards.”
Over two million people in the UK are living with sight loss. But for half of the people affected, their sight loss could have been prevented. Sadly, avoidable blindness is projected to rise steeply in years to come with data predicting four million people will have avoidable sight loss by 2050. However, regular eye testing is an effective way to detect treatable blinding conditions early to prevent vision loss.
The Royal National Institute for Blind people (RNIB) survey reveals that 47% of those aged over 60 do not have annual eye tests. Previous campaigns have failed to deliver lasting impact on general eye health awareness and crucially, have not substantially altered rates of blindness in vulnerable groups including the elderly, migrant communities and those living in poverty.
Further information
Eye Heroes workshops can be run by anyone, and the team are always looking for more volunteers. 
If you are interested in becoming a volunteer, please visit the website or email Eye Heroes at mailto:[email protected]. All resources have been developed by the Eye Heroes team and are downloadable free of charge. 
Follow the Eye Heroes action on Twitter by searching @EyeHeroes.
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