Background: India's National Programme for Control of Blindness focuses almost exclusively on cataract, based on a national survey done in the 1980s which reported that cataract caused 80% of the blindness in India. No current population-based data on the causes of blindness in India are available. We assessed the rate and causes of blindness in an urban population in southern India.
Methods: We selected 2954 participants by stratified, random, cluster, systematic sampling from Hyderabad city. Eligible participants were interviewed and given a detailed ocular assessment, including visual acuity, refraction, slitlamp biomicroscopy, applanation intraocular pressure, gonioscopy, dilatation, grading of cataract, stereoscopic fundus assessment, and automated-threshold visual fields.
Findings: 2522 participants, including 1399 aged 30 years or more, were assessed. 49 participants (all aged > or =30 years) were blind (presenting distance visual acuity <6/60 or central visual field <200 in the better eye). The rate of blindness among those aged 30 years or more, adjusted for age and sex, was 3.08% ([95% CI 1.95-4.21]). Causes included cataract (29.7%), retinal disease (17.1%), corneal disease (15.4%), refractive error (12.5%), glaucoma (12.1%), and optic atrophy (11.0%). 15.7% of the blindness caused by visual-field constriction would have been missed without visual-field examination. Also without visual-field and detailed dilated-fundus assessments, blindness attributed to cataract would have been overestimated by up to 75.8%. If the use of cataract surgery in this urban population was half that found in this study, which simulates the situation in rural India, cataract would have caused 51.8% (39.4-64.2) of blindness, significantly less than the 80% accepted by current policy.
Interpretation: Much of the blindness in this Indian population was due to non-cataract causes. The previous national survey did not include detailed dilated-fundus assessment and visual-field examination which could have led to overestimation of cataract as a cause of blindness in India. Policy-makers in India should encourage well-designed population-based epidemiological studies from which to develop a comprehensive long-term policy on blindness in addition to dealing with cataract.