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Study sheds light on diabetic retinopathy in Fiji

Study sheds light on diabetic retinopathy in Fiji

New voice on diabetic blindness ahead of World Diabetes Day on 14 November

For immediate release: 6 November 2013

New research from The Fred Hollows Foundation NZ looks at the problem of diabetic retinopathy in Fiji, confirming the complexity and far-reaching nature of the eye disease. In December, ophthalmologist Dr Erika Damato will present the findings from her research, examining rates of patient engagement, coordination of multiple services and the overall ability of the Pacific nation’s health system to handle projected patient numbers in the years ahead.  

Damato’s presentations at the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Ophthalmologists (RANZCO) and World Diabetes Congress mark the culmination of her fellowship with The Fred Hollows Foundation NZ and The University of Auckland. Her research findings represent a concerted effort to better understand the scale of diabetes and how its containment can reduce the burden on nascent eye care systems.

“The first thing we need to do is understand the problem,” said Damato. “Over 40% of the adult population in Fiji have diabetes. If nothing is done, this could overwhelm the health care system and lead to alarming rates of diabetic retinopathy and blindness.”

For Andrew Bell, Executive Director of The Fred Hollows Foundation NZ, Damato’s research is an essential contribution to the development of a comprehensive eye care plan for the Pacific region. 

“We cannot ignore this issue,” said Bell. “The Foundation is committed to ending avoidable blindness and diabetic retinopathy will soon be one of its main causes. We have to take meaningful action. Damato’s work is giving us invaluable insights into the complexity of the problem.”

Damato made the first in a series of presentations over the weekend at the Pacific Retinal Symposium, part of RANZCO’s 45th Annual Scientific Congress in Hobart, Tasmania. Her talk was entitled "Diabetic Retinopathy data from the Pacific Eye Institute, Fiji” and draws lessons from the Institute’s Diabetes Eye Centre, a Suva-based facility built by The Foundation in 2012 with the support of the New Zealand Aid Programme and Australian Aid (AusAID). 

“The Foundation is playing an important role in helping to build a system that has measurable results,” she said. “Now there is accurate clinical data, trained staff and specialised equipment to deal with the problem. This gives researchers and health organisations crucial information and lets us begin a discussion about where to apply emphasis to achieve desired outcomes.”

Bell stressed that diabetes has been a priority for The Foundation for several years with the Diabetes Eye Clinic the most tangible proof of its commitment. In addition to the purpose-built facility at the Pacific Eye Institute, the laser treatment provided by specially trained eye doctors is having a real impact in controlling diabetic blindness. In 2013 over 6,000 consultations were given at the Diabetes Eye Clinic, including laser treatments, special reviews and photo screenings. This work is augmented with a robust diabetes outreach program headed by Dr Biu Sikivou. 

“We’re committed to playing an active role in the fight against diabetes in the Pacific,” said Bell. “As Damato’s research suggests, the problem is huge and no one can tackle these issues alone. We’re determined to work in partnership with local ministries and other organisations to develop and implement the most effective policies to get diabetic retinopathy under control.”

Despite concerns about open-ended engagement in a complex public health problem, Damato suggests that The Foundation can play a critical role in building a system to be handed over.

“What The Foundation has achieved in Fiji can be seen as a model with applications across the Pacific,” she said. “Rather than guess at the scale of the problem, the Foundation can provide structures within a defined timeframe and then work to hand these systems over to local Ministries of Health to continue this work.” 

Damato will present her findings at the World Diabetes Congress in Melbourne on 3 December. The second phase of this research will look at suggestions for closer integration of services and collaborations between local and international health organisations. 

ENDS

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