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There has been a major decline in diabetes-related sight loss across Wales, thanks to a national screening programme for over 12 year olds.
In recent years, there has been an increased awareness of diabetes; its causes, effects and available treatments. One of the risks associated with the disease is damage to the eyes, which can lead to sight loss and even blindness.
But since a national screening programme was fully rolled out in 2007, the proportion of diabetics who go blind or have impaired vision has nearly halved.
Swansea University conducted research between 2007 and 2015, which analysed new cases of blindness and visual impairment in England and Wales. They found that new cases of severe sight impairment (SSI) due to diabetic retinopathy fell from 31.3 to 15.8 per 100,000 people between 2007 and 2015. The research also showed that there were 339 fewer new cases for all levels of sight loss from any cause combined in 2014-2015 compared with 2007-08. It was calculated that 22 people have had their sight saved1.
Why the change?
Diabetics over the age of 12 are now able to have annual screenings, which health experts say has showed very positive results. Remarkably, this is despite 52,229 more people being diagnosed with diabetes in Wales during the research period - an increase of 40%.
The screening programme began in 2003 and was fully rolled out across Wales by 2007. However, there is a concern that not everyone eligible for the screenings makes use of them - 20% of the people offered screenings don’t accept them1.
183,000 people in Wales are living with diabetes - that’s the estimate from Diabetes Wales, which also states that another 70,000 people could be living with it, undiagnosed3.
What is diabetic retinopathy?
It’s a complication of diabetes, whereby high blood sugar levels cause damage to the retina (the back of the eye). When left undetected and untreated it can eventually lead to blindness.
The eye’s retina is essentially a layer of cells that are very sensitive to light. They convert this into electrical signals, in order for the brain to process it as sight. The retina needs a regular supply of blood to function and it receives this through a network of very small blood vessels. If a person’s blood sugar levels remain high for a long time, this can gradually cause damage. This happens in three main ways:
- Background retinopathy: small bulges in the blood vessels, which may bleed slightly
- Pre-proliferate retinopathy: more significant changes to the blood vessels, including bleeding into the eye
- Proliferate retinopathy: formation of scar tissue and new, weaker blood vessels (which bleed easily) on the retina, which can result in some loss of vision
The symptoms of diabetic retinopathy can include:
- Worsening vision over time
- Sudden loss of vision
- Shapes floating in your field of vision (these are small debris in part of the eye, sometimes known as floaters)
- Blurry or patchy vision
- Pain or redness in your eyes
Once diagnosed (the sooner, the better), diabetic retinopathy is possible to treat, either through medication or laser treatment4.
Diagnosing and treating diabetes
It’s important to detect diabetes as soon as possible, in order to get the right treatment and prevent further complications, such as sight loss. Common symptoms for diabetes include:
- Urinating more than usual, especially at night
- Feeling very thirsty
- Feeling very tired
- Unexplained weight loss
- Itching in the genitals, or recurring bouts of thrush
- Scratches, cuts or wounds that take longer to heal
- Blurred vision (when the lens of the eye becomes dry)
These symptoms are mainly down to excess glucose in your blood - if it isn’t used for energy, your body will try to get rid of it in your urine.
For Type 1 diabetes, symptoms can occur quickly. However, for Type 2 diabetes, they can develop more gradually over time, which is why so many people can live with it and not know5.
You can read our article on reducing the risk of diabetes here. We also offer treatment options for both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes here. If you’re concerned about diabetes, we would recommend booking an appointment with your GP.
To find out more call us on 0808 101 0337
or make an online enquiry.