Government Needs to Prevent Vision Loss

( A University of Auckland academic is calling for the Government to make preventing vision loss for ageing New Zealanders top of the national health agenda.

Associate Professor Philip Polkinghorne, from the University of Auckland’s Department of Ophthalmology also works as a specialist retinal consultant at Auckland Eye.

He says one of the biggest issues facing ageing Kiwis is a blinding condition called macular degeneration and the Government isn’t doing enough to address it.

The condition occurs when the macula or central part of the retina degenerates due to ageing and can result in total blindness – but if caught in time is preventable says Polkinghorne.

Macular degeneration is four times as common as dementia and half as common as diabetes, yet it is not well-known, he says.

In 2009* 48% of blind New Zealanders over the age of 50 had macular degeneration, in comparison to 11% from cataracts and 16% from glaucoma and Polkinghorne says the Government needs to warn Kiwis they are at risk.

“What we really need is a big public awareness push, like we had with cataracts and glaucoma – and I believe this is where the Government has to step in and come to the party. We need to make this a public health issue, because the cost of not doing that is too high.”

Polkinghorne says the total economic cost of treating a person over 40 with vision loss is $22,217 per person. There is also a social cost, he says.

“People with macular degeneration normally end up in a rest-home about three years before a normally sighted person. They might also be unable to drive, are more likely to fall and injure themselves, and may get depressed because they can’t manage on their own, he says.

Education should start from a young age, says Polkinghorne, so people know what symptoms to watch out for as they age and can keep an eye on at-risk relatives.

“What my colleagues and I at Auckland Eye believe is that the Government should put preventing blindness on the national health targets. At the age of 50, you’ve got a one in seven chance of showing early signs of macular degeneration, and in another eight years that rises to one in three,” says Polkinghorne.

“Ten percent of Aucklanders are over the age of 65. We have statistics from 2009 that says macular degeneration accounts for 48% of blindness in Kiwis over 50. That’s nearly half! Now compare that with cataracts, which only accounts for 11% and glaucoma at 16% and you can see how even the numbers stack up.

“Basic eye care is a human right, and that should be the Government’s responsibility. By all means, trial it and measure the outcomes, but if people have a health problem with their eyes, they should be able to go to a public hospital and get it treated, he says.

Polkinghorne says macular degeneration is easily detected through a simple retinal screen by a qualified ophthalmologist.

“The point is that it’s very easy to test for this condition and a lot of it is preventable. Macular degeneration can be treated in a variety of ways: lifestyle changes like weight control, cessation of smoking, controlling hypertension, diet supplements and with medications, such as anti-endothelial vascular growth injections. But it needs to be caught in time, as any resulting vision loss is irreversible,” he says.

Polkinghorne says Kiwis simply cannot afford to neglect their eye health as they age.

“Blindness and visual impairment can have severe consequences on all aspects of our lives: work, socialising, even the simple act of getting in your car and driving down to the shops,” he says.

He advises those over 50, to have their eyes checked regularly, and ask to be screened for macular degeneration.

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Media Release 31 May 2012.