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Diabetes Impacting Heavily on Niuean Eye Sight

Media release: 5 November, 2013

Diabetes Impacting Heavily on Niuean Eye Sight  – Kiwi Expert

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The rise of diabetes in Niue is behind more than half of the eye checks recently conducted on locals, says a Kiwi eye specialist.

Dr Sarah Welch, a retinal surgeon at Auckland Eye, was one of two eye specialists who recently provided eye consultations for over 100 patients in Niue.

The most common patients seen were diabetics who needed diabetic eye checks, with eight of those requiring further treatment in New Zealand, she says.

Dr Welch says that along with age, having diabetes can increase the chance of developing eye problems.

“There are roughly 200 diabetics in Niue who need to be checked for retinal eye problems, which is about 15% of the local population. With the prevalence of diabetes on the rise, this is becoming increasingly important,” she says.

“Eye problems caused by diabetes need to be identified in the early stages, as otherwise the patients risk losing their vision completely.”

Dr Welch says she aims to help set up a screening programme in Niue where diabetics’ eyes will be checked and photographed on alternate years.

“All diabetics should have an eye check at least every two years. A system could be organised where a portable camera is brought to Niue for a week with a photographer or screener who can assess whether or not the patient is at risk of developing diabetes-related eye problems,” she says.

Along with fellow eye surgeon, Dr Penny McCallum, Dr Welch performed eight local surgeries for cataracts and pterygium, helping many Niueans to combat serious eye conditions which could have led to blindness.

Cataracts are the most common cause of blindness, and are caused by the clouding of the lens inside the eye which leads to decreased vision, says Dr Welch. Pterygium occurs when sun damage results in a raised, triangular-shaped over-growth of conjunctival tissue over the surface of the eye’s cornea, she says.

It was the eye surgeon’s third week-long visit to Niue, which she makes bi-annually.

Dr Welch says there are only three doctors who reside in the island nation, so the locals rely on help from overseas for specialised eye consultations and surgeries.

“As people get older they are more likely to have eye problems such as cataracts, so Niue’s mature population are more at risk,” she says.

“Our visits to Niue are extremely important given the older people on the island are less likely to travel for checks or treatment. Meanwhile, youths are more inclined to come to locations like NZ for work and education, so they are not so affected by eye conditions.”

Dr Welch says the fact that Pacific Island children spend a lot of time outside could pertain to why they are less likely to experience certain eye problems.

“It is thought there is a relationship between spending time inside and being short-sighted. For example, the Singaporean population has become a lot more short-sighted in last 30 to 40 years because their lifestyles now see them spend a lot of time indoors,” she says.

Having optimum vision has been particularly important for the local population since the island was hit by Cyclone Heta in 2004, she says.

“The cyclone knocked out the hospital and much of the infrastructure, and each year I’ve been back to the island I’ve noticed it has slowly recovered,” she says.

“However, for those suffering eye problems, the rebuild has evidently been harder, especially for those who need their vision to perform their work.”

Dr Welch says she finds it extremely satisfying to use her skills overseas, where they’re needed most.

“I enjoy being able to contribute to ensuring better eye health in the wider world, and offering expertise to those who wouldn’t otherwise have access to specialist checks or treatment,” she says.

Dr Welch says that in the more serious cases Niue patients are sent to NZ for treatment, which is funded in part by our local Government.


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