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Focus on eye health

October 2012

  • Jennifer Gersbeck

Last year I met a young woman who had a profound impact on me. She was 37 and completely blind. Her honesty about her blindness was confronting. Tania Withers went blind at the age of 24 from diabetic retinopathy – one day she woke up with a black spot on her eye and within three months everything was black. 

According to the Melbourne woman, if she had had her eyes tested regularly, she would not be blind today. She says there is not a day that goes by that she doesn’t wish she had done things differently.

With vision loss predicted to rise dramatically in the next decade, World Sight Day on October 11 is a good time to remember why we should look after our eyes. 

In 2009, almost 575,000 Australians over 40 experienced some form of vision loss, representing 5.8 percent of the population in that age group. Of these, around 66,500 people were blind. This number is predicted to rise to more than 800,000 by 2020, with those going blind to increase beyond 100,000.

What most Australians don’t realise is that 75 percent of all blindness and vision loss in this country is preventable or treatable. Think about it; over half a million individuals losing some or all of their vision needlessly. 

This is a startling fact and one which should be catalytic; each and every one of us has the potential to be affected by vision loss and the vast majority of us have the power to proactively avoid becoming a statistic.  

Many of the measures we can take are very simple, but the first and most important thing every one of us should be encouraged to do is to have regular eye checks with an eye health professional. Many of the most common eye conditions do not have symptoms in the early stages, so early detection is crucial. Just as you would have your general health and your teeth seen to on a regular basis, so too is it vital to include regular eye exams on your health to-do list. This is a quick and simple preventative measure which may just save your sight.

As trite as it may sound, most of us truly do take our eyesight for granted, yet take the time to consider for just a moment the implications of eye disease. Loss of vision or vision impairment could profoundly impact on your life or that of somebody close to you. Loss of independence, the inability to work, drive, function on a daily basis; these are the realities for those with failing eyesight.

So who is most at risk? Everyone should take their eye health into account but the most vulnerable populations include those over 40, smokers, people with diabetes, those with a family history of eye disease and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Approximately 80 per cent of avoidable vision loss in Australia is caused by just five conditions:


Age-related macular degeneration (AMD)

The leading cause of blindness in Australia, affecting approximately one in seven people over 50. AMD is irreversible so early detection is vital.



Australia’s leading cause of vision impairment; incidence rises to almost 100 percent as people reach 90.  


Diabetic retinopathy

A complication of diabetes with little or no symptoms in the early stages. Leading to serious vision impairment and currently affecting 15 percent of Australia’s 1.7 million diabetes sufferers.



A  group of diseases which slowly destroy the optic nerve. Currently affecting 300,000 Australians, however only 50 percent of these are aware that they have the condition.


Uncorrected or under-corrected refractive error

A focusing disorder of the eye, not a disease. Refractive error means that the eye does not bend light correctly, resulting in blurred vision.

With the incidence of these conditions increasing steadily with age, the importance of early intervention cannot be overstated. Each has its direct and obvious effects and the ancillary consequences are far reaching.

Modern lifestyles, with their inherent shifts in priorities and associated conveniences, have a lot to answer for in the fight against eye disease. Longer working hours, poor diets lacking in plant foods and essential nutrients and little time for exercise have all rendered a large portion of the population unhealthy, often dangerously overweight and perilously vulnerable to diabetes; another major predictor of serious eye disease.  

According to Professor Avni Sali from the National Institute of Integrated Medicine, the incidence of Type 2 diabetes has more than doubled since the 1980s. This epidemic is global, with numbers set to rise steadily as lifestyle factors compound, and in most cases it is wholly avoidable. A simple change to a Mediterranean influenced diet, high in green leafy vegetables, lean protein and Omega 3s is a great start. Avoidance or cessation of drinking and more importantly smoking, regular physical activity and maintaining low stress levels are all crucial components of a diabetes-free lifestyle. It’s these commonly unknown links, such as that between lifestyle, chronic disease and eye health, which are so insidious to our nation’s health, and so we must heed the call.

According to figures from an Access Economics Report, vision loss prevents healthy and independent ageing and is associated with spikes in depression, falls – often resulting in fractures or worse – early admission to nursing homes and increased use of health services.

The personal toll of vision loss can be devastating, with the ripple effect reaching far beyond the individual. Aside from the human cost however, are the financial implications, which are enormous. The total eye health expenditure in 2009 was estimated to be close to $3 billion. This figure is forecast to double in the next decade, which is truly astonishing no matter how you look at it, particularly considering how a great proportion of that spend is fully avoidable. 

Vision 2020 Australia’s goal – to eliminate avoidable blindness and vision loss by 2020 – is based on the core principles of collaboration, coordination, accessibility and equity. By harnessing the collective power of our 60 member organisations, we provide the framework for the elimination of the causes of blindness, and also provide the opportunity for those affected to fully participate in the community with the support required.

Functional vision and the autonomy which comes with it are fundamental rights, and it’s the role of Government, society and individuals to ensure that safeguards are implemented so that nobody is ever needlessly denied the right to see.



• More than 285 million people world-wide are blind or vision impaired and some 90 percent of these people live in developing countries.

• Half of all blindness occurs in the Asia Pacific region.

• 60 percent of children in low income countries die within two years of becoming blind.

• Globally 80 percent of blindness and vision loss is preventable or treatable.

• The World Health Organisation says around 75 percent of all deaths in 2007 in the Pacific were caused by non-communicable diseases, and in Fiji this figure was as high as 82 percent.

• Blindness due to cataracts occurs in over half the people who are blind globally.


Jennifer Gersbeck is CEO of Vision 2020 Australia, Melbourne. Vision 2020 Australia is the peak body for the eye health and vision care sector. 
For further information see the following websites:
Vision 2020 Australia
Glaucoma Australia
Macular Degeneration Foundation
Diabetes Australia
Optometrists Association Australia
For information about eye health and World Sight Day see




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