Over 300 get treatment to prevent blindness from diabetes

Over 5,000 people with diabetes in Samoa have been screened for diabetic retinopathy and 335 people have now received treatment to prevent them from going blind. 

And as part of the efforts to screen all people with diabetes across Samoa’s 10 islands, outreach teams have visited communities 50 times since 2016, resulting in 2,805 people being screened for diabetic eye disease. In addition, 255 clinicians received training in eye care and diabetic retinopathy, and are now able to refer people with eye problems for advice and treatment.

The screening of the diabetic patients, the public screening for diabetic eye disease and the clinicians’ training was made possible with the funding support of The Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust (The Trust).

The United Kingdom-based charity foundation — which was established in 2012 to create a lasting legacy in honour of Her Majesty The Queen as Head of the Commonwealth — has been working with Samoa’s Ministry of Health (M.O.H.) and The Fred Hollows Foundation (New Zealand) since 2016 to help bring affordable, quality eye care to Samoans, including those who live in the most remote of communities, who have or are at risk of diabetic retinopathy.

The Trust Chief Executive Officer, Dr Astrid Bonfield, is in the country and will meet with with M.O.H. officials, Samoa’s first eye doctor Dr Lucilla Ah Ching-Sefo, and eye health care experts on Monday.

The purpose of the meeting, according to a statement issued by The Trust, is for the C.E.O. to thank and commend them for their efforts to prevent blindness as a result of diabetes across Samoa.

In the Pacific, four out of five people who are blind don’t need to be. Many people across the region who are blind or are at risk of blindness because they don’t have access to affordable eye care. Diabetic retinopathy, also referred to as diabetes eye disease, is a complication of diabetes and is the fastest growing cause of blindness globally. It occurs when poor control of blood sugar levels, high blood pressure and high lipid levels in the blood damage the blood vessels in the retina. If left untreated, it can lead to irreversible blindness.

Over half of all people globally with diabetes are unaware they have the condition, and by the time their vision deteriorates, is it often too late for treatment. Regular screening, early treatment, and careful health management can reduce the risk of vision loss by 95 per cent and is crucial to ensuring people with diabetes do not go blind, when their sight could be saved.

The Trust says Samoa has a large diabetic population who require screening and treatment for diabetic eye disease. The Trust, together with its partner The Fred Hollows Foundation (New Zealand), has worked with the M.O.H. to secure permanent changes to the health system by integrating screening and quality treatment for diabetic retinopathy into the care provided to people with diabetes. By making long-term improvements to the public health system, The Trust’s aim has been to protect the sight of all those who have diabetes in Samoa, as well as those at risk of developing the disease in the future. 

An independent evaluation of the Trust’s programme to tackle blindness caused by diabetes in Samoa, conducted by Clark Consulting and Allen + Clarke at the end of 2018, found that there is now a much greater awareness of diabetic retinopathy across the island and the number of people with diabetes getting their screenings has increased substantially. The evaluation additionally found that thanks to the provision of a diabetic retinopathy camera for the island of Savai’i — which was donated by The Trust in 2018 — and the more efficient deployment of staff, including Dr Lucilla and optometrist Erna Takazawa, the local health system is better equipped to tackle the disease. 

Dr Lucilla became Samoa’s first eye doctor in 2016 after graduating from the Pacific Eye Institute in Fiji. Samoa now has a comprehensive eye care service available all year-round due to Dr Lucilla’s hard work, unlike previously when The Fred Hollows Foundation (New Zealand) was only able to run a single week-long outreach each year to bring eye care to the people. 

Dr Lucilla said her training in Fiji will go a long way to boost eyecare health services in Samoa. 

“The Foundation’s training of local eye nurses and doctors at the Pacific Eye Institute in Fiji has provided us with the skills and knowledge to greatly and immediately improve the eye care health service available in Samoa,” she said. 

 Erna Takazawa, Samoa’s only optometrist serving the public health system, was one of the first ever young people across the Commonwealth to receive a Queen’s Young Leaders Award – a prestigious Award set up by the Trust to recognise the remarkable achievements of young people who are making a positive impact in their communities and changing lives. Erna’s important work has led to free eye care services for children and the elderly and a reduction in cost of eyewear for adults across Samoa.

Speaking about the work in Samoa, Dr Astrid said they have achieved a lot with their partners over the last three years. 

“It is truly remarkable all that Samoa has achieved over the past three years to bring quality eye care to the people of Samoa. The efforts of the Ministry of Health, our partner The Fred Hollows Foundation (New Zealand) and eye care professionals like Dr Lucilla Ah Ching-Sefo and Erna Takazawa, to strengthen the health system and provide local, quality services and improve eye care is ensuring people are protected against entirely avoidable forms of blindness each and every day,” she said.

Enabling access to quality eye care was on the agenda at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London last year, added Dr Astrid. 

“I am very grateful for the Ministry of Health’s engagement in and leadership of the Trust’s programme. When Commonwealth Heads of Government met in London last year, they agreed that they would ‘take action towards achieving access to quality eye care for all’. By providing quality eye care for all people with diabetes is a fantastic response by Samoa to that commitment - and one in which the Trust is very proud to have played a part. I am encouraged from all I’ve seen here today in Apia that the country’s commitment to ensuring people receive quality eye care will continue long into the future.”

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