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Diabetic Retinopathy

Diabetic retinopathy is a complication of diabetes mellitus that damages blood vessels inside the retina at the back of the eye. It commonly affects both eyes and can lead to vision loss if it is not treated.

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There are three forms of diabetic retinopathy:

  • ‘Non-proliferative’ retinopathy is an early form of the disease, where the retinal blood vessels leak fluid or bleed.
  • ‘Macular oedema’ is a swelling of the macula, caused by the leakage of fluid from retinal blood vessels. It can damage central vision.
  • ‘Proliferative’ retinopathy is an advanced form of the disease and occurs when blood vessels in the retina disappear and are replaced by new fragile vessels that bleed easily, that can result in a sudden loss of vision.

How common is diabetic retinopathy?

All people with diabetes mellitus (Type 1 and Type 2) are at risk of developing diabetic retinopathy.

All people with diabetes need regular eye checks (at least every two years) to detect early signs of this condition. However, recent studies suggest that only half of the people with diabetes have a regular eye exam, and one-third have never been checked.

People with diabetes have a 25 times increased risk of vision loss.

What are the symptoms?

There are no early-stage symptoms of diabetic retinopathy. Vision loss may not occur until the disease is advanced.

Late-stage diabetic retinopathy symptoms include:

  • Blurred vision
  • Sudden loss of vision

What are the causes?

Diabetic retinopathy is a complication of diabetes mellitus. Poorly controlled blood sugars, high blood pressure and high cholesterol will increase the risk of developing diabetic retinopathy and vision loss.

Can I prevent diabetic retinopathy?

Effective management of diabetes mellitus, including better control of blood sugar levels, blood pressure and cholesterol, will help delay the onset and severity of retinopathy. When diabetes is first diagnosed, regular eye examinations are recommended. Early diagnosis and timely treatment can prevent up to 98% of severe vision loss.

What treatment is available?

Your doctor can assist you to manage diabetes, blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Macular oedema and proliferative retinopathy are treated with retinal laser treatment. The laser seals leaking blood vessels and can be used to reduce growth of new fragile vessels, helping prevent vision loss. Surgery may be required for severe cases of diabetic retinopathy that do not respond to laser treatment. New drugs (intravitreal anti-VEGF injections such as Lucentis, Eylea and Avastin) are available to control macular oedema which does not respond to laser.

Diabetic retinopathy research

CERA is investigating better management options for diabetic retinopathy through our Health Services and Clinical Trials units. Dr Peter van Wijngaarden leads basic science research into the causes of diabetic retinopathy and Dr Mohamed Dirani is looking at the evaluation of diabetic retinopathy research at a population health level.

CERA has established collaborations with the Diabetes Centre for Clinical Research Excellence at St Vincent’s Institute, with the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute and other leading research groups in this field.

Diabetes Australia Victoria has been a member of CERA since 2012.

How can I help?

You can support diabetic retinopathy research at CERA by making a donation or volunteering for a research trial.