by Ian Flitcroft and Sally McFadden
Every week a million children across the planet become short sighted (also known as nearsighted or myopic). There are not only more myopic kids than ever before, but they are more nearsighted than previous generations. Unless we stop this epidemic, a billion people could be at risk of blindness by 2050 from this apparently benign condition. In the working age population, complications of myopia used to be the second leading cause of blindness. Now, in many countries, it is the most common cause of sight loss.
LOSING SIGHT explores this ‘silent’ epidemic from the perspective of those affected, the doctors trying to save their sight and researchers working to understand what is driving this epidemic and find a cure. This interview-led audio documentary starts by highlighting the personal impact this condition has had on people across many countries. It then turns to experts in the field to explain how short-sightedness can damage the eye and how in many cases this damage is irreversible.
With the help of scientists and ophthalmologists who have spent their careers studying myopia we go on a journey from ancient Greece to the modern day to understand the causes of myopia. We now know the eye has evolved a complex mechanism to control its own growth to create 20/20 vision, but our modern environment of education, urban living, artificial lighting and computers seem to be disrupting this process and driving the myopia epidemic. Finally in the last few years we are learning how to stop or slow down myopia. The stakes could not be higher. Success could save a billion people from losing their sight.
The story arc of this documentary starts with the personal stories of people whose lives have been upended by losing their sight due to the complications of myopia. While this seems like a devastating loss, some of the people we have interviewed during this project’s development have been truly inspiring in how they have adapted. But everyone of them wishes that they never had to make such dramatic lifesyle changes and hopes that their children or grandchildren won’t have to. To explore the science and history behind the evolving myopia epidemic that is affecting countries across the globe, we next turn to the doctors and scientists who have spent their lives treating and investigating this condition.
Myopia has always affected a small percentage of humans and our journey in exploring the origins of the modern epidemic begins with philosophical discussions of Aristotle. A thousand years later, an eminent Arabic scholar Hasan Ibn al-Haytham was the first to understand how the eye functions to focus an image. In the 1500-1600’s eyeglasses were first invented and Leonard da Vinci even sketched a design for a contact lens, centuries before the concept was put into practice. In the seventeenth century the basis for myopia as an abnormal pattern of eye growth was established. A centuries long debate followed as to whether nature (i.e. our genes) or nurture (our environment) was the cause for myopia, but by the 1950’s scientists were firmly stating that myopia was purely caused by genetics and hence beyond our control.
Then in the late 1970’s two pivotal research papers were published showing that myopia could be caused by changing what an eye could see, initially by blocking vision and later with spectacle lenses. These discoveries lit a very slow burning fuse of scientific exploration into myopia. In the last few years a series of discoveries from Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and the USA have finally provided the realistic prospect of preventing myopia. To complete the narrative arc we look at the prospects for children starting school from the perspective of myopic parents and grandparents who have suffered from complications of myopia. In the final section we explain how these children might be protected from the myopia epidemic and its sight-threatening consequences.
Authors Ian Flitcroft and Sally McFadden have worked in the field of experimental myopia for over 30 years and personally know all the leading figures working in this field. Producer Jane Weiner was a personal friend of one of the most notable the scientists in this field who helped to kickstart research into myopia in the late ’70s, the late Professor Josh Wallman. Through Jane’s preliminary research filming for her documentary, we already have some 20 hours of recorded interviews with leading scientists from around the world.
The style of the project will be a documentary with a primary narrator to provide continuity and consistency, interspersed with interviews and personal stories from individuals with myopia-associated vision loss and scientists/doctors. The personal dimension is designed to engage the listener on an emotional level, while the involvement of the leading scientists in this field will ensure that the content is scientifically sound and fully up to date.
Why an Audio Book?
The audio book component grew out of the process of developing a multi-platform documentary film on this topic. People we’ve interviewed whose diminished or lost sight through the complications of myopia, repeatedly mentioned how important audiobooks have become in their lives.
For people affected by this condition audio is the perfect medium and, for those of us lucky enough to have good sight, a non-visual medium like audio provides opportunities to explore the consequences of visual loss.
The length of this audio project with its 12 x 30 minute episodes allows for a much deeper exploration of this topic.
In developing this audio project we will also be preparing a popular science book based on the same text.
Ian Flitcroft – Author
A pediatric ophthalmologist and professor of Vision Science based in Dublin, Ireland, Ian has been working in the field of experimental myopia for over 25 years. He now runs a myopia research group that is involved in clinical trials for myopia prevention and explores the drivers of the myopia epidemic, such as use of smart phones.
Ian is also an author. Journey by Starlight is a graphic novel based on an award-winning science blog (http://journeybystarlight.blogspot.com) which was originally published in the USA and has been translated into Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Turkish. He is also a published novelist, The Reluctant Cannibals (Legend Press, UK) that was shortlisted for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2013.
Sally McFadden – Co-Author
A mathematician in the School of Psychology at University of Newcastle, and Head of the Vision Sciences Group in the HMRI, Sally has dedicated over 30 years to Vision Science.
Sally’s research expertise in the area of Vision Science covers a range of methods including mathematical, physiological, psychophysics, optical, imaging, biological, surgical, immunohistochemistry, molecular and gene analysis, plus tissue engineering.
Sally was involved in the groundbreaking discovery that myopia is visually mediated as opposed to genetically mediated. She has also been investigating the efficacy of multifocal spectacle lenses designed to combat the shrinking in the periphery of the eye that accompanies myopia and that contain signals that slow eye growth. Her Vision Sciences group is working to design treatments and interventions to slow myopia progression.