Ageing Populations Face Crisis of Rising Blindness

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The World Health Organization has warned that as populations age, millions will face increased risks of blindness and vision impairment. With the number of people with diabetes set to soar in the next 20 years, governments neglect a new eye health challenge at their peril. Around the world, organisations of many kinds are joining forces to help protect the eyesight of older people, and to mark World Sight Day 2008 (WSD08).

The world's populations are ageing rapidly, bringing greater risk of blindness and vision impairment to millions. Around the world, organisations of many kinds are joining forces to help protect the eyesight of older people, and to mark World Sight Day 2008 (WSD08).

http://www.v2020.org/wsd08

Worldwide, 45 million people are blind, the great majority of whom are over 50 years of age, but in over three-quarters of cases, especially those affecting older people, the sight loss results from preventable or treatable causes (otherwise known as avoidable).

  •     75% of blindness is avoidable
  •     80% of blind people are over 50 years of age
  •     Cataract is the world's greatest cause of blindness, yet its cure is well-known, fast and one of the most cost-effective of all health interventions
  •     Timely intervention can preserve sight, so regular eye tests for older people are essential
  •     Up to three hundred organisations from 60 countries will organise events large and small on and around 9th October to mark World Sight Day, with the common theme of Eyes on the Future

The emerging danger to ageing eyes - diabetic retinopathy

At least 171 million people worldwide have diabetes mellitus. This figure is likely to more than double to an estimated 366 million by 2030, with the greatest proportionate increase occurring in medium and low-income countries (see figure 1). Diabetic retinopathy (DR) is a common complication of diabetes and has now become a leading cause of new-onset blindness in many industrialised countries and an increasingly frequent cause of blindness elsewhere.

Whereas most people with diabetes in industrialised countries are above the age of retirement, in developing countries those most frequently affected are much younger, in the 'working' age group between 35 and 64. People in this situation will be affected by their condition for far longer, for example living with the resulting sight loss for twenty years or more. The steep global increase in diabetes will occur because of population ageing and growth, and because of increasing trends towards obesity, unhealthy diets and sedentary lifestyles.

Studies have shown that, with good management, many of the complications of diabetes can be prevented or delayed. Effective management includes lifestyle measures such as a healthy diet, physical activity, maintaining appropriate weight and not smoking. Medication often has an important role to play, particularly for the control of blood glucose, blood pressure and blood lipids.
Dr. Ivo Kocur, who leads the Prevention of Blindness and Deafness at WHO's headquarters in Geneva, warns than "75% of patients who have had diabetes mellitus for more than 20 years will have some form of diabetic retinopathy, but even those who take care to manage the condition with diet and medication often fail to get regular eye tests, and report only when the condition has progressed beyond effective treatment".

Effective treatment is well-known to significantly reduce the risk of blindness and vision loss. Clinical studies spanning more than 30 years have shown that appropriate treatment can reduce the risks by more than 90%.The research and resulting WHO guidance on diabetes and diabetic retinopathy are now available, but it rests with the governments to recognise the urgency, and to put that advice into action.

While the individual contributions of NGOs, institutions and governments have saved the sight of millions, collaborative efforts have the potential to actually eliminate avoidable blindness around the world. These efforts are consolidated in VISION 2020: The Right to Sight, the global initiative of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness (IAPB), for the elimination of avoidable blindness.

For more information on VISION 2020 and World Sight Day, contact Abi Smith in the IAPB Registered Office in London, England (+44 (0)20 7927 2974)

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Abi Smith

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