Australia’s older population is being warned against the country’s leading cause of preventable visual loss, glaucoma, and urged to take steps to prevent and detect the disease as soon as possible.

The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Ophthalmologists (RANZCO) has stressed the importance of early detection and effective treatment of glaucoma in the lead up to World Glaucoma Week, from 10 to 16 March.

Glaucoma is an irreversible condition which affects the optic nerve. If left undetected, the disease will progress until sight has been irreversibly damaged, causing varying degrees of permanent vision loss and visual disability.

Glaucoma specialist, Associate Professor Ivan Goldberg, said the seriousness of the disease should not be underestimated.

“Glaucoma is nicknamed ‘the silent thief of sight’ because it gradually destroys peripheral vision, you will not detect these changes yourself until it becomes quite advanced,” A/Prof Goldberg said.

“A staggering 50 per cent of glaucoma patients with this progressive disease are not being treated because they have not yet been diagnosed.”

Recent research advances in ophthalmology, such as a new fixed combination eye drop and advancing laser techniques, can significantly slow down the disease.

“Innovative ‘minimally invasive’ glaucoma surgeries are being tested to see how they might improve the management of glaucoma.”

A/Prof Goldberg said glaucoma becomes increasingly common with age.

“If you have a first degree relative with glaucoma, your risk increases 10-fold.

“I urge anyone over 40 years to be tested, both eye pressure and optic nerve examinations are vital for diagnosis.

“Speak to your general practitioner or optometrist, who if necessary can arrange a referral to an ophthalmologist.

Only an ophthalmologist can confirm the diagnosis and treat glaucoma.

In other eye-related news, a new charity that aims to pick up the fight against macular degneration has been launched…

The view when a person without (top) and with (bottom) macular degeneration looks through their car windscreen. Photo: recreated by vision impaired researcher and artist, Erica Tandori, and Centre for Eye Research Australia.

Melbourne researchers are turning skin cells into eye cells to help them understand an incurable form of blindness that affects one in seven older Australians: age-related macular degeneration.

The new initiative was announced yesterday at the launch of the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia. The new charity supports stem cell research, and aims to inform the community of the potential opportunities and the present dangers of stem cell medicine.
Macular degeneration is a common, incurable cause of blindness that is estimated to cost the Australian economy $5.15 billion per year.

The foundation said its “first investment” has brought Dr Kathryn Davidson, a young American stem cell expert, back to Melbourne and the Centre for Eye Research Australia.

Dr Davidson said she hopes to help solve the mystery of what causes age-related macular degeneration.

“We don’t know for certain what’s happening in the eye to cause macular degeneration,” said Dr Davidson.

“We know that certain retinal cells die, and so do the other cells that depend on them, but we need to know how and why. Then we can start to think about early diagnosis and treatment.

“We will take skin cells from the patient, turn them into stem cells and then into new retinal cells. Then we can compare these eye cells with damaged eye cells from the same patients and see what is happening.”

The foundation has been established to support research efforts and provide much-needed public information about stem cell therapies.

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