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Many diabetics blind to sight risk

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The nation is facing an epidemic of blindness and severely impaired vision because of the prevalence of diabetes, leading researchers have warned.

In a stark assessment of prospects for the estimated 1.7 million people with diabetes, the Centre for Eye Research Australia (CERA) and the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute have released a report suggesting hundreds of thousands are at risk of going blind in the next decade without regular eye tests.

Report author, CERA executive Dr Mohamed Dirani, warned that almost all people with type 1 diabetes, and 60 per cent of those with type 2 diabetes, would develop some form of diabetic eye disease within 20 years of their diagnosis.

Dr Dirani said diabetics were at far great risk of going blind than the general population, with the likelihood of blindness 25 times greater among diabetics.

Commenting on the launch of the report, Tania Withers, a type 1 diabetic woman from Parkdale, Melbourne, said that she struggled to manage her condition during her teenage years and early adulthood, and neglected to get her eyesight checked regularly.

“At 23 [years], my eyesight started deteriorating and I was diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy,” Ms Withers said. “I had not attended regular eye examinations despite being warned by doctors and diabetes educators. Unfortunately, by this stage my retinopathy was advanced and, despite several rounds of laser [treatment] and surgery, I was totally blind within three months.”

Adding to the severity of the threat, it has been estimated around 700,000 people have undiagnosed diabetes.

Dr Dirani said diabetic retinopathy currently affected around 300,000 people, and was the leading cause of vision loss and blindness in Australians younger than 60 years of age.

Tragically, he said, much of this suffering could be ameliorated with regular eye tests.

“Diabetic eye disease is a progressive eye disease,” he said. “It progresses over time, so early stages of the disease typically go unnoticed.”

“The main message is that prevention is key. Individuals with eye disease must have their eyes checked at least once every two years,” Dr Dirani said.

He warned that the incidence of diabetes-related blindness and vision loss was likely to increase as the disease itself become more prevalent, with estimates that the number of people with the condition will double by 2025.

“Diabetic eye disease is one of the leading complications of diabetes,” he said. “With this increase in prevalence [of diabetes], of course we can expect the prevalence of diabetic eye disease to increase, and that will continue to pose serious personal, public health and economic challenges.”

Adrian Rollins