Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Thwarted by Ocular Weakness

March 29th, 2010 · 4 Comments


If you have even a passing interest in the nuts and bolts of warfare, we highly recommend this thorough exploration of Afghan marksmanship. We’ve all heard how rural Afghan boys are essentially born with rifles in their hands, and that meme has led to a belief that Taliban soldiers are expert shots. But the reality is quite different, at least according to C.J. Chivers, and his piece goes to great lengths to analyze the reasons why.

At the end of the article, though, Chivers throws the floor open to commenters, asking for military vets to chime in with their explanations. Lots of good stuff down there, especially regarding the Taliban’s less-than-exemplary maintenance habits and their macho refusal to fire from the prone position. But the idea that struck us most was this one:

A substantial percentage of individuals world wide suffer from myopia, which probably is the case amongst the Taliban as well; in general, the developing world has a limited or nonexistent prescription eye ware use, and I think it’s generous to consider Afghanistan “developing”. I doubt the Taliban’s health care coverage, such as it is, has a very generous prescription policy. Additionally, the high altitude of Afghanistan increases the likelihood of cataracts due to increased ultraviolet exposure and again, there are probably limited cataract extractions, Ray-ban or Oakley options as well. Lacking extant shopping malls replete with optical shops and sun glass kiosks, and often squinting, half-blind, and sun burned, it’s amazing that the Taliban do as well as they do.

We’d never thought of this issue before—how something as taken-for-granted as proper eye care can have such major consequences. But we also wonder whether this commenter overstated the prevalence of ocular issues. Could it really be that a significant percentage of the world is cursed with vision just as bad as Microkhan’s?

As it turns out, the figures for myopia prevalence vary widely from country to country. The stock U.S. figure is about 20 percent, with roughly half of that among people under 18 years of age. Obviously, our military might benefits greatly from ready access to LensCrafters. But the prevalence rates are far lower in less developed countries, even when researchers control for lack of access to diagnostic tools. Check out this 2004 study from the Ecuadorian jungle, for example, where myopia affects less than 6 percent of the local population. The study’s authors concluded:

The prevalence of myopia among two different Ecuadorian groups, one indigenous to the Amazon
and the other a white-mestizo group from the Andes, is low, in agreement with other studies on populations with low educational levels or a nonurban lifestyle. In agreement with other authors, we believe that the prevalence of myopia may be attributed partly to the genetic background of the population and partly to environmental factors (especially near-work activity).

In other words, we have consigned ourselves to poor vision in exchange for attaining our First World comforts. A fair trade, no doubt—we certainly wouldn’t want to live in constant fear of malaria or dysentery just so we could ditch our glasses. In that sense, myopia and obesity have quite a lot in common—afflictions that develop in tandem with the society-wide accumulation of wealth. Everything in this world has consequences, even though the benefits may vastly outweigh the costs.

Update Another case in point: the ocular-fitness disparity between two groups of students in Chennai.

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4 Comments so far ↓

  • Captured Shadow

    It is an interesting topic. I know that much of the myopia in Ecuador goes uncorrected and I suspect that the study you linked to, may suffer from significant selection bias. For various reasons wearing glasses might be seen as a sign of weakness, so lots of people would avoid being tested, even by people who knew they would benefit.
    However I also think that environment plays a role, exposure to close work probably has something to do with it, and it might be interesting to track myopia rates and video gaming rates. But of course if you are already myopic you would have more fun at video games that say baseball, or bird watching.

    As I recall, on of the first orders of business when the US was trying to equip the African Union troops was to get eyeglasses to the soldiers that needed them.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Captured Shadow: I’ll have to look up that AU story. It’s scary to imagine how many heavily armed men the world over likely suffer from poor vision.

  • Sam

    A few years ago there was an interesting paper in either Nature or Science linking a lot of the first-world prevalence of optical defects to the 24-hour exposure to light that first-world infants experience. The study suggested that periodic exposure to true darkness in the 0-24 month age range is necessary for correct development of the eye.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Sam: Fascinating, will def. have to look that up. Makes perfect sense–Nature couldn’t possibly have planned for the 24/7 deluge of electric light.

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