Outlook is brighter with diabetic retinopathy screening

When caught early, treatment for retinopathy is effective at reducing or preventing damage to sight

Diabetic retinopathy can cause the blood vessels in the lining at the back of the eye (the retina) to leak or become blocked and damage your sight.  Photograph: Thinkstock

Diabetic retinopathy can cause the blood vessels in the lining at the back of the eye (the retina) to leak or become blocked and damage your sight. Photograph: Thinkstock



Diabetes is the leading cause of blindness in working age adults in Ireland with an average of one person with the condition going blind each week. However, the recent introduction of a national screening programme has significantly improved the outlook for people with diabetes-related sight loss.

A common complication of diabetes, diabetic retinopathy may not have any symptoms or may not affect sight in the early stages but, as the condition progresses, sight will eventually be affected. When the condition is caught early, treatment is effective at reducing or preventing damage to sight.

Diabetic retinopathy can cause the blood vessels in the lining at the back of the eye (the retina) to leak or become blocked and damage your sight. In about 10 per cent of cases, diabetic macular edema (DME) may occur where blood vessels leak their contents into the macular region of the retina causing significant vision loss.

With diabetes now affecting an estimated 200,000 plus people in Ireland, diabetic retinopathy and DME are also on the increase. People with both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes are at risk of developing diabetic retinopathy and the longer you have had diabetes, the more likely you are to develop diabetic retinopathy. Symptoms can include blurred vision and black spots or ‘floaters’ that appear to float in your eye.

The long-awaited national diabetic retinal screening programme introduced last year offers free, regular diabetic retinopathy screening to people with diabetes aged 12 years and older. More information is available at www.diabeticretinascreen.ie

Anna Moran from Irish charity Fighting Blindness stresses how important it is for people with diabetes to participate in the screening programme, pointing out that through regular and effective retina screening, diabetic retinopathy can be caught early and effectively treated.

“In the UK, they have been doing a national retina screening programme for ten years now. When they started the programme, diabetic retinopathy was a major cause of sight loss in working age population there but the screening has been such a success that the condition is no longer a significant cause in that population. We are just at the beginning of that journey and there seems to be a bit of apathy about participating maybe because it’s a new programme and people do not realise how important and significant an opportunity this is for them,” she comments.

Diabetic retinopathy and DME are very preventable and treatable in the majority of cases, according to Moran, through regular screening, a healthy diet, good management of blood sugars, cutting out smoking and reducing alcohol intake.

Dr Mark Cahill, spokesperson for the Irish College of Ophthalmologists and retinal specialist at the Royal Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital explains that diabetic retinopathy screening is the most cost effective of all screening programmes because it targets a very specific group.

“If diabetic retinopathy is not detected in the early stages, it can lead to vision impairment and even vision loss. Eating well and maintaining a healthy lifestyle are hugely important but it is also essential for anyone with diabetes to have their eyes screened annually in order to detect the signs of diabetic retinopathy as early as possible,” he says.

Dr Cahill points out that it can take a long time for symptoms of a vision problem to present but many people affected by diabetes-related sight loss are forced to give up work and driving due to their condition.

The treatments for diabetic retinopathy are excellent, he explains, and include laser surgery called pan retinal photocoagulation (PRP) and the injection of a chemical signal called Vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) into the eye to stimulate the growth of new blood vessels.

Celebrity chef, Andrew Rudd has joined Diabetes Ireland, NCBI, the National Sight Loss Agency, Fighting Blindness, the Irish College of Ophthalmologists (ICO), the Association of Optometrists Ireland (AOI) and Novartis to launch the Eye Am What I Eat campaign.

People were invited to devise their own recipe for eye health, including one or more of the ingredients from a list of the Top 10 foods for eye health. These foods are: avocados; carrots; broccoli; eggs; spinach; kale; tomatoes; sunflower seeds; garlic; salmon. A special event will take place at Andrew Judd’s private dining venue, Medley in Dublin city centre tomorrow (Wednesday, July 23rd) where the four finalists will participate in a cook-off and an overall winner selected.

For more information on support and counselling for people with a visual impairment, go to www.fightingblindness.ie