As Scientists and Clinicians Gather from Around the Globe for Major Retina Conference, Fighting Blindness Calls for Urgent Publication & Implementation of Primary Care Eye Services Report

– More comprehensive approach required to address ophthalmology hospital in-patient and day case waiting lists as more than 13,000 wait months for eye appointments and procedures, with one in four waiting over a year –

– Conference hears from scientist who created “retina in a dish”,
the Fastest Paralympian on the Planet,
and Ireland’s only choir for people who are vision-impaired –

Date of issue: Friday, November 11 2016
The Irish patient-led charity, Fighting Blindness, has today called on the Government to urgently publish the Review of Primary Care Eye Services and commit to fully fund and implement the recommendations of the report, which is in the final stages of development. The plan would see greater emphasis on eye care services being delivered in the community for stable chronic conditions and thus free up valuable hospital resources and time for more critical acute cases. The need for the rapid implementation of the plan has particular significance with National Treatment Purchase Fund figures from the end of October showing:

  • ophthalmology had the highest waiting list for hospital in-patient and day case treatment at 13,237 patients, with more than one in four waiting for more than a year 1
  • ophthalmology had the fifth highest list for out-patient treatment at 31,868, with one in five waiting more than a year 2.

The call was made at the Fighting Blindness RETINA 2016 conference, supported by Novartis – a major international gathering of leading clinicians and scientists at the vanguard of efforts to treat and cure vision impairment and blindness. The event was officially opened by the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Mary Mitchell O’Connor TD, whose department has particular responsibility for science, technology and innovation.

It’s estimated that sight loss currently affects more than 246,000 people in Ireland, and this is projected to rise to 272,000 by 20203.

Review of Eye Care Services Key to Improving Outcomes

Kevin Whelan, Chief Executive Officer, Fighting Blindness, believes that the Review of Primary Care Eye Services offers a potential roadmap to providing a more effective service for all patients and addressing waiting lists:
“Current ophthalmology waiting list numbers are extremely concerning. They mean that a sight issue will continue to interfere with a person’s quality of life for so much longer than is necessary. More particularly, for people with rare degenerative eye conditions, it means that they are not being monitored regularly and so we are not able to learn more about these complex conditions and how they will affect people long-term.

“We are aware of the huge body of work that has gone into developing the National Clinical Programme for Ophthalmology. Fighting Blindness wants the review to focus on reconfiguring how we deliver ophthalmology services, with primary care delivering more ophthalmic services in the community, leaving hospitals free for more complex clinical procedures. We welcome the fact that the National Treatment Purchase Fund is working to reduce the numbers waiting for treatment, however, if we are to address the structural causes behind these figures then, in addition to this, a new way of delivering care is urgently required. With the projected ten per cent increase in people experiencing sight loss between now and 2020, particularly arising from conditions such as age-related macular degeneration, we cannot get started soon enough – the time for action is now.”

Among the key speakers at RETINA 2016 taking place at the Radisson Blu Royal Hotel in Dublin’s city centre are:

  • Dr David Gamm who was the first to create a primitive human retina in a laboratory dish from a person’s blood
  • Dr Michael Redmond who discovered the RPE65 gene crucial for vision in being responsible for the use of Vitamin A in the eye
  • Prof Austin Roorda, who is using telescope technology to offer microscopic views of the retina, and
  • Prof Robin Ali who is investigating the use of stem cells in transplanting retinal cells to restore vision.

Paralympic cyclist Peter Ryan and Paralympic athlete Orla Comerford are among those appearing at the event, while Fighting Blindness ambassador Jason Smyth, Paralymic Gold Medallist and the Fastest Paralympian on the Planet, will speak at a Public Engagement Day on Saturday November 12. The event is open to people with conditions that affect the retina, whether it’s retinitis pigmentosa, Stargardt disease, diabetic retinopathy, age-related macular degeneration, and more. The day will climax with what promises to be a rousing performance from the 20-strong Fighting Blindness’ Visionaries Choir, Ireland’s only choir for people who are vision-impaired.

Dr David Gamm, Director of the McPherson Eye Research Institute and Associate Professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, led his team to develop the first primitive human retina in a laboratory dish:

“In our laboratory, we are working hard to develop treatments and cures for people who have devastating eye conditions that lead to vision impairment and blindness. We were the first to create a three-dimensional primitive human retina, known as an optic vesicle – in a laboratory dish from a person’s blood in 2011. The aim is ultimately to have banks of photoreceptor cells and retinal tissues – not unlike the blood banks that we have today – that can be used to treat diseased retina in patients who have tried all other treatments and therapies available to them or for whom there is no treatment currently available. Of course, we have some work to do yet, but the progress made towards creating ‘spare retinal parts’ in a dish is extremely encouraging, and there is an expectation that we could see an increase in clinical trials in the next three-five years for patients with retinitis pigmentosa and age-related macular degeneration.”

“Stuff of Science Fiction”
For five-time Paralympic Gold Medallist and the Fastest Paralympian on the Planet, Fighting Blindness ambassador Jason Smyth, the highlight of RETINA 2016 is getting to quiz experts on the advances being made with particular eye conditions:
“Some of the topics being discussed, like using telescope technology to look into the eye, creating a retina in a laboratory dish, and using stem cells to transplant retinal cells, sound like science fiction, but RETINA 2016 proves they are all very real. As someone living with Stargardt disease, which means I now have around ten per cent vision, the highlight of RETINA is the opportunity to hear from some of the world’s leading experts on the latest breakthroughs in vision research and potential new treatments. It really gives huge hope and inspiration to people like me that one day, we might see again, or at least a lot more than we do now.”

Loretto Callaghan, Managing Director of Novartis Ireland, which supports the organisation of the conference, explains the significance of the event:
“We at Novartis are delighted to support Retina 2016. I would like to congratulate Fighting Blindness on developing this meeting, which is now a three-day internationally-renowned conference, which uniquely caters for scientists, clinicians and the wider public. I am very proud of Novartis’s association with Retina 2016 as this is our seventh year to partner with Fighting Blindness on building this excellent meeting.”

People can also follow proceedings at RETINA 2016 as they happen on twitter @twitter.com/fightngblindnes – the conference hashtag is #RetinaDublin.

ENDS

Issued by:
Don Delaney, d2 communications, tel.: 087 7933249 / email don@d2communications.ie

About Fighting Blindness

Fighting Blindness is an Irish patient-led charity funding and enabling world-leading research into treatments and cures for blindness. We provide a professional counselling service to support people and families affected by sight loss. Through education and advocacy, Fighting Blindness works to empower everyone in Ireland living with severe vision impairment.

Fighting Blindness is involved with rare, genetic, age-related and degenerative conditions and represents the 246,000 adults and children in Ireland who are affected by severe vision impairment and blindness. For more information, telephone 01 6789 004 or visit www.FightingBlindness.ie

 References

1 The National Treatment Purchase Fund website 2016 Inpatient Day Case National Numbers http://www.ntpf.ie/home/pdf//2016/10/nationalnumbers/in-patient/National02.pdf

2 The National Treatment Purchase Fund website 2016 Outpatient National Numbers http://www.ntpf.ie/home/pdf//2016/10/nationalnumbers/out-patient/National02.pdf

3 NCBI (2010) The Cost of Sight Loss – the economic impact of vision impairment and blindness in the Republic of Ireland https://www.fightingblindness.ie-content/uploads/2013/12/NCBI-2011.pdf