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Saving sight in people with diabetes

Tania Withers has type 1 diabetes and started to lose her sight due to diabetic retinopathy at the age of 23. “I didn’t get my eyes checked until it was too late,” she says. “If we had detected the small changes earlier, it might have prevented the big changes later on.”

Unfortunately, Tania’s story is common with almost half of people with diabetes developing the eye disease, caused by damage to the blood vessels in the retina. Untreated, diabetic retinopathy will eventually lead to vision loss and blindness.

image-tools (46)Now, thanks to a new diabetic retinopathy screening service designed by Associate Professor Ecosse Lamoureux at the Centre for Eye Research Australia (CERA), funded by the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council and supported by Melbourne Pathology and Diabetes Australia-Vic, people with diabetes will be offered a free screening for diabetic retinopathy to help detect early changes in their eyes and prevent vision loss later in life.

The proposed service offers people with diabetes free diabetic retinopathy screening as part of their regular visit to a pathology centre.  The screening is simple and painless, consisting of a general questionnaire, a vision test and retinal photography. This new screening model is called ‘RetPath’.

The service aims to improve the standard of eye care in people who do not regularly have their eyes screened for diabetic retinopathy.

“Diabetic retinopathy is a leading complication of diabetes and a major cause of vision impairment and blindness worldwide,” says RetPath Project Manager Ms Melanie Larizza.

“A progressive eye disease, it usually has little or no symptoms until the disease has advanced, by which time, any damage caused to the eye and vision is often irreversible.”

To ensure the early detection and treatment of the disease, it is recommended that people with diabetes have a comprehensive eye examination at least once every 2 years.  However, research suggests that between 30 and 50 per cent of people with diabetes do not have regular eye check-ups, putting them at risk of irreversible vision loss. The non-compliance rate is worse in indigenous Australians and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with diabetes with up to 80% not getting the required examination.

“We know that people with diabetes attend pathology centres regularly to have their bloods tested so this is a perfect opportunity to screen for diabetic retinopathy and remind them about the importance of regular eye check-ups,” says Ms Larizza.

“Through regular eye examinations and adequate diabetes management, nearly all vision loss associated with diabetic retinopathy is preventable.”

Diabetes Australia- Vic Chief Executive Greg Johnson says diabetic retinopathy is a significant cause of vision loss and blindness in adult Australians, but through regular screening, it is preventable.

“There are around 300,000 Australians who have some degree of diabetic retinopathy and around 65,000 have sight-threatening diabetic retinopathy. At 15 years after diagnosis, half of all people with diabetes will develop retinopathy,” he says.

As someone who has lost her vision to the disease, Ms Withers believes that the proposed service could fill a long-time gap in diabetes care. “It’s a brilliant idea and has been needed for a long time.”

“I wish I’d had the opportunity when I was younger to have access to a service like this; it may have helped prevent me from losing my vision.”