The Australian Institute for Health and Welfare (AIHW) has launched its Indigenous eye health measures 2021 report which Vision 2020 Australia says shows measurable progress towards improving the eye health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
The report features data from the 2019-20 year, which included the first four months of the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia.
Despite the pandemic’s impact, the report highlights that the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people having an eye examination by an optometrist or ophthalmologist continued to increase, reaching 104,300 in 2019-20 (compared to 100,700 in 2018-19).
However, it also highlights some of the continuing challenges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people face in accessing the eyecare.
For example, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to wait substantially longer for cataract surgery (a median number of 124 days) than other Australians (82 days).
According to Vision 2020 Australia, there are practical solutions to address these challenges, which are laid out in the national plan for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander eye health and vision, Strong eyes, Strong Communities – A five year plan for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander eye health and vision, 2019-2024.
“Investing in public provision of priority treatments (such as cataract surgery and treatments for diabetic eye disease), supporting development of community led models and building local case management that can help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people connect to, and remain engaged with, treatment are all critical,” the peak body for the eye health and vision care sector stated.
“Vision 2020 Australia continues to call for Australian Government investment in these and other priority areas so that we can achieve the goal of ending avoidable blindness in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities by 2025.”
Vision 2020 Australia interim CEO Ms Maureen O’Keefe said the positive results, despite the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, demonstrated the progress Vision 2020 Australia members have been making for several years in tackling avoidable blindness and ensuring access to timely eyecare services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
“While there is reason for optimism, the AIHW report clearly highlights the need for further work to achieve the goal of ending avoidable blindness by 2025,” she said.
“Now is the time to renew effort and investment in this important area.”
Vision 2020 Australia represents around 50 member organisations involved in local and global eye health and vision care, health promotion, low vision support, vision rehabilitation, eye research, professional assistance and community support.
“The eye health and vision care sector has developed Strong eyes, Strong Communities – A five year plan for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander eye health and vision to ensure all Australians have the same access to eyecare,” O’Keefe added.
“We are thankful for the support this plan has received so far and are keen to continue working with communities and the government to end avoidable blindness for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.”
Other key findings
- The overall prevalence of active trachoma among children aged 5–9 in at-risk communities fell from 15% in 2009 to 4.8% in 2012 and has since plateaued at around this level (4.5% in 2019).
Screening and diagnosis
- Between 2010–11 and 2019–20, the proportion of Indigenous Australians who had an eye health check as part of a health assessment increased from 11% to 28% (based on age-standardised rates).
- In 2019–20, 12% of Indigenous Australians (around 104,300) had an eye examination by an optometrist or ophthalmologist.
- Among Indigenous Australians who had a diabetes test, the age-standardised proportion who were screened for diabetic retinopathy rose from an estimated 30% in 2008-09 to 34% in 2019–20.
- In 2018–19, the age-standardised cataract surgery rate for Indigenous Australians was about 8,519 hospitalisations per 1,000,000 population – an increase of 43% since 2011–12.
- In 2019, the overall treatment coverage of active trachoma cases in at-risk communities was 89% – that is, 4,419 community members identified as having trachoma received treatment. This included children with active trachoma, along with their household contacts and other community members.
- In 2019–20, 15,436 spectacles were dispensed to Indigenous Australians under state spectacle schemes by New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania (the states and territories able to provide data). Of these, Victoria (2,490 spectacles, 41 per 1,000 population) came closest to meeting the estimated number of spectacles needed (3,923) – 63% of the population-based need met.
Workforce and outreach
- The number of occasions of service provided under the Visiting Optometrists Scheme – which provides specialist eye health services to Indigenous Australians in mainly regional and remote areas – have fluctuated, but overall services more than tripled between 2010–11 (around 8, 300 occasions of service) and 2018–19 (around 25,850) before declining in 2019–20 (around 22,089).
Comparison with non-Indigenous Australians
- Between 2009–10 to 2018–19, the total age-standardised proportion of Indigenous Australians tested for diabetes who had an eye examination increased from 29% to 36% before decreasing to 34% in 2019–20, while for non-Indigenous Australians it rose from 35% to 44% before declining to 42%.
- In 2018–19, age-standardised hospitalisation rates for Indigenous Australians for cataract surgery (8,519 per 1,000,000) were lower than for non-Indigenous Australians (9,102 per 1,000,000).