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Indigenous eye health gap to close by 2020

28/11/2018By Myles Hume
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Rates of blindness and vision loss among the Indigenous population are expected to align with the national rate within two years and coincide with the elimination of trachoma, a new report has revealed.

Indigenous eye health has continued to “improve significantly”, according to University of Melbourne ophthalmologist Dr Hugh Taylor, who has been leading work in the area through The Roadmap to Close the Gap for Vision initiative.

Taylor’s annual update at the 2018 RANZCO Scientific Congress last week – seven years since launching the project – revealed blindness and impaired vision among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders had halved from 6x that of the non-Indigenous population in 2008, to 3x in 2018.

In addition, trachoma dropped from 21% to 3.8% during the same period and is on track to be eliminated by the end of 2020. Australia is the only developed nation in the world with endemic levels of the disease, due to its presence in Indigenous communities.

“[Indigenous] eye health has come a long way in a short time and is on track to equal that of the non-Indigenous population by 2020,” Taylor said.

“It is terrific to see the progress that has been made with great work being done by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health organisations and all of our partners in eye health.”


“It is crucial that we keep working closely with local communities through Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations, and at higher levels to make sure that services are properly provided and resourced.”
Hugh Taylor, UniMelb

Taylor, who established the University of Melbourne’s Indigenous Eye Health Unit in 2008, also announced diabetic retinopathy cameras and trained operators had been placed in more than 150 Aboriginal health clinics.

According to the Department of Health, one third of Indigenous adults are diagnosed with diabetes, leaving them susceptible to developing diabetic retinopathy, yet only half access recommended retinal examinations. Up to 98% of diabetes-related blindness is preventable through annual exams and timely treatment at early stages.

The update also indicated 53 of 63 Australian regions were coordinating Indigenous eyecare – covering more than 70% of the nation’s Indigenous population. Meanwhile, 19 of 42 systemic issues identified have been fixed and 75% of intermediate steps have been completed.

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“All of these improvements are very encouraging, but more needs to be done if we want to achieve our goal of giving all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people the same eye health as other Australians,” he said.

“It is crucial that we keep working closely with local communities through Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations, and at higher levels to make sure that services are properly provided and resourced across states and territories.

“That close involvement and engagement with the community holds the key to eliminating unnecessary blindness in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.”

However, the eyecare gains appear to be in direct contrast to the progress being made in overall Indigenous health, with AMA president Dr Tony Bartone calling for the current ‘Closing the Gap Strategy’ to be “rebuilt”.

“Progress is limited, mixed, and disappointing. If anything, the gap is widening as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health gains are outpaced by improvement in non-Indigenous health outcomes,” Bartone said.

“The strategy has all but unravelled, and efforts underway now to refresh the strategy run the risk of simply perpetuating the current implementation failures. The strategy needs to be rebuilt from the ground up.”

According to the Department of Health, uncorrected refractive error causes almost two thirds of vision impairment in Indigenous communities, while cataract is still the leading cause of blindness.

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