A new government report has shown that more Indigenous Australians are accessing eye health services than ever before, with significant strides reported in cataract surgery rates and the suppression of trachoma.
However, advocates warn there is still major unmet need based on where people live, with some areas only meeting 12% of demand for cataract surgery.
The new data – published on Thursday 5 November – features in the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW)’s fourth annual report entitled Indigenous eye health measures 2020.
Launched virtually by Federal Health Minister Mr Greg Hunt, the report shows Indigenous Australians aged 40 years and over had three times the rate of vision loss of non-Indigenous Australians, after adjusting for age and sex.
“The Indigenous eye health measures were developed to monitor changes in Indigenous eye health, and their use of eye health services,” AIHW spokesperson Dr Fadwa Al-Yaman said.
“Since the first report, published in 2017, there have been substantial improvements in the rate of Indigenous Australians accessing cataract surgery, diabetic retinopathy screening and eye health exams.”
The figures show between 2010–11 and 2018–19 the proportion of Indigenous Australians who had an eye health check as part of a health assessment increased from 11% to 30% (based on age-standardised rates).
The rate of diabetic retinopathy screening increased from 31% to 37% between 2008–09 and 2018–19.
The report examined other causes of vision loss among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and showed the rate of cataract surgery increased by 42% since 2008–10, from around 5,200 procedures to 7,400 per 1,000,000 in 2016–18.
The prevalence of trachoma – a highly infectious eye disease that can cause blindness if left untreated – has fallen significantly among Indigenous children aged 5–9, from 15% in 2009 to 4.5% in 2019.
Al-Yaman noted that Indigenous Australians face many barriers in accessing eye health services including cultural, financial and locational barriers, alongside dealing with complexities of the eye health care system.
“Ongoing monitoring will be important to better understand changes in the eye health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, their access to and use of eye health services, and to identity gaps in service delivery,” she said.
‘There is simply no excuse’
In response to the report, The Fred Hollows Foundation said while cataract surgery rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have improved since 2008, rates were lower in major cities than in remote areas due to greater need.
It said Western Sydney and Sydney North are the two areas furthest from meeting the need for cataract surgery, meeting 12% and 13% of the need respectively. In contrast, South West Queensland is the area closest to meeting the need for cataract surgery, meeting about 94% of demand.
The organisation said the report also highlighted a significant gap in the proportion of Indigenous Australians who have had an eye exam in a given year compared to non-Indigenous Australians (16% vs 22%)
CEO Mr Ian Wishart said eye health care was a basic human right.
“In a wealthy country like ours there is simply no excuse for our First Peoples to be left behind,” he said.
“We recognise the progress made in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander eye health and we’re encouraged to see more Indigenous-specific eye checks being done. But the AIHW Indigenous eye health measures 2020 report shows there is still huge unmet need based largely on where a person happens to live in Australia.”
The foundation’s Indigenous Australia Program manager Mr Shaun Tatipata said Aboriginal owned and led health services were key to closing the gap in the city and country.
“Australia always was and always will be Aboriginal land. But we have always had to fight for our rights, including the right to the health care that other Australians enjoy,” Tatipata said.
“The gaps in eye care will always remain unless investment is made in Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services and community-led solutions to the challenges faced with accessing services.”