World Retina Day
Many New Zealanders regard vision loss as a normal part of growing old - something to be regretted but not prevented.
But consumer group Retina New Zealand warns that because of this country's ageing population, low vision is poised to become a major social and health issue if something isn't done to prevent it.
"Already thousands of older New Zealanders are unable to drive or read or walk to the shops without assistance because of vision problems," says Retina New Zealand president Anthony Haas. "As our population ages we may get to the point where a significant sector of society is disabled by low vision."
Mr Haas is calling on funding agencies to support research into eye conditions both within New Zealand and internationally in a bid to find ways to prevent or cure some of the most common causes of low vision, such as age-related macular degeneration. He says one such project is underway here, headed by Otago University Research Fellow Dr Marion Maw (head of Retina New Zealand's Scientific and Medical Advisory Board) who is on the hunt for the genes which cause common forms of retinal degeneration.
Mr Haas there are many older people in the community who have low vision caused by macular degeneration but have never been diagnosed, treated or given access to support services. He believes it's imperative that health funding agencies invest in supporting people with low vision to help them retain their independence and dignity and keep them safe in their environment.
Auckland eye specialist Dr Dianne Sharp says early detection and diagnosis is vital for people who develop macular degeneration because there are treatment options which work best if the problem is diagnosed in the very early stages. At least 1500 New Zealanders a year develop the wet form of age-related macular degeneration which has the most severe impact on vision.
The condition will affect up to 10 per cent of New Zealanders aged over 75. "One of the earliest signs of macular degeneration is distortion where straight lines start to look crooked or curved," says Dr Sharp. "It is very important that people are aware of the early stages and see their eye specialist."
Mr Haas says the outlook for those with macular degeneration has lifted considerably since he was diagnosed with the condition five years ago. "I was told there was no treatment and no hope for my condition."
World Retina Day, which is being held on September 25, is an attempt by international groups to raise awareness about diseases which cause the degeneration of the retina - such as macular degeneration, retinitis pigmentosa and Usher syndrome.
Mr Haas says he is heartened at comments made recently by Foundation for the Blind chief executive Jane Holden calling for action to prevent age-related low vision and increase support for those who already have low vision.
In the second issue of the publication The Decision Maker, Health & Disability Policy Forum, Jane Holden writes that the Foundation membership, which has taken a century to build to 13,000 members, is expected to double in the next three decades.
"The major contributing factor to this growth relates to the growing older population forecasts," writes Ms Holden, adding that there is too much complacency surrounding vision loss in old age. She cites the lack of low vision clinics in New Zealand, lack of Government funding for low vision services, the fact few people understand the potential benefits of rehabilitation or intervention and the fact there is little research being undertaken on the potential benefits of low vision services as evidence of this complacency.
Mr Haas agrees strongly with Jane Holden's comments. He says it is particularly important that New Zealand collaborates with overseas researchers so this country will have a stake in major research programmes. He says Retina New Zealand is aiming to inform the community about low vision, to help people with low vision gain access to support services which will enable them to live their lives without the accidents and illnesses that can arise from living with a disability in isolation. Retina New Zealand's new website (retina.org.nz) is being launched on World Retina Day (September 25) to provide information and links to other international websites.
Mr Haas can speak from experience about the benefit of accessing the right information, having developed macular degeneration at the age of 50 and experiencing problems with glare for several years.
"It was at a cocktail party that I discovered somebody else had photochromatic glasses which cut out glare. I had been in exquisite agony until I asked the foundation, my eye doctor and optician about these glasses. Within two hours of putting them on my headaches dramatically reduced and I was a happy chappy. If I had the right information as a younger man life may have been less challenging."