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Govt turns blind eye on sight-saving work

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Hundreds of country Australians will be condemned to blindness by a short-sighted Federal Government decision to axe funding for a path-breaking eye health service for people in remote and Indigenous communities, ophthalmologists have warned.

The Government has ceased funding the Indigenous and Remote Eye Health Service (IRIS), an initiative of the Australian Society of Ophthalmologists that was established with a $5 million outlay by the-then Labor Government.

In its four years of operation, the IRIS Task Force, chaired by former Wallaby captain Dr Mark Loane and involving former AMA President Dr Bill Glasson, has undertaken 12,800 patient consultations, conducted 2100 surgical procedures (mostly restoring sight), and has supported the establishment of 22 ongoing eye health services.

“Large numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and non-Indigenous Australians are being blinded each year,” the Society said in a statement. “Sadly, though, funding has been cut for the one truly national program that could save their sight. The stark reality is that the gap is being widened, not closed.”

A third of Indigenous people report problems with their eyesight, and the 2008National Indigenous eye health survey (NIEHS) found that low vision was nearly three times more common among Indigenous adults than the broader population.

Overall, 3 per cent Indigenous adults suffer vision loss caused by cataracts, but only 65 of those who need cataract surgery received it.

In addition, eye disease and vision loos linked to diabetes is common, but in 2008 only 20 per cent of Indigenous people with diabetes had received an eye examination in the previous 12 months.

Unsurprisingly, the 2008 NIEHS survey found that blindness was six times more common among Indigenous adults than the general population, with the major causes cataracts, damage to eye nerves, refractive error, and diabetic eye disease.

The Society said the decision not to renew funding for the IRIs program had been taken despite strenuous efforts by the organisation to convince the Government to continue its support.

Adrian Rollins