A group of Senators yesterday backed a motion to implement a long-awaited strategy which could help eradicate preventable blindness in Ireland. The motion, put forward and led by Senator Martin Conway, who lives with sight loss, calls for the Government to eliminate avoidable blindness by the year 2020 and implement a coherent national vision strategy.
The motion, debated in Seanad Eireann at 4pm yesterday, calls for the new Minister of Health, Leo Varadkar, TD to act upon the recommendations of the National Vision Coalition – a group representing the interests of the vision impaired and blind community – to implement cost-effective measures to prevent avoidable blindness in Ireland.
There are currently more than 220,000 people in Ireland who are blind or vision impaired, with this number expected to increase to almost 272,000 by 2020 (3). A further five people per week became blind in Ireland since 2010 (1), despite 75 to 80% of blindness being preventable (1,3). Research has shown that the majority of these cases can be medically managed to prevent sight loss moving to total blindness.
Senator Conway is the first visually impaired member of the Oireachtas and is the Government spokesperson on Justice, Disability and Equality in the Seanad. He has campaigned tirelessly for those with disabilities in Ireland and has been a driving force in highlighting the need for a national vision strategy in Ireland, along with his party colleague Deputy Mary Mitchell-O’Connor, TD.
Speaking ahead of the debate, Senator Conway highlighted his own personal experience of sight loss. “Unfortunately, my sight loss was not preventable, yet the fact that 75-80% of blindness can be avoided here in Ireland is a huge motivator for me to ensure we do everything we can to eliminate preventable blindness as soon as possible. I have 16% vision and can’t do some of the activities my colleagues take for granted, such as driving, but I have not let my sight loss hold me back.
“I hope my Seanad Eireann colleagues vote in favour of this motion and do not turn a blind eye to the economic and human impact of this important health issue. I also hope that it is an issue that our new Minister for Health, Leo Varadkar will place at the top of his agenda,” he said.
Blindness and vision impairment cost the Irish state €205 million in 2010, yet up to €76 million could potentially be saved if a series of cost-effective measures for the four main eye diseases in Ireland – cataract, diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma and wet-age related macular degeneration (wet AMD) – were implemented. This potential saving is particularly relevant since the cost of blindness is expected to increase to €2.5 billion by 2020.
Des Kenny, Chief Executive Officer, NCBI and joint Chairperson of the National Vision Coalition commented on the importance of the motion being passed. “We are very grateful to Senator Conway for elevating this motion to the agenda and bringing the voices of people with sight loss to be heard in Seanad Eireann today. After almost 30 years as the CEO of the NCBI, I will be stepping down at the end of this month to retire. This important issue being brought to the Seanad’s attention this month (the month of my retirement) is amongst one of the major landmarks in my career in working in services for blind and vision impaired persons.
I hope the motion will be passed and that Minister Varadkar will prioritise services for those living with sight loss, and take our recommendations on board for a national strategy for vision health to avoid further preventable blindness in Ireland,” he said.
The Coalition came together in 2012 to launch a comprehensive report recommending the implementation of a national vision strategy, called the Strategic Framework for Vision Health, and proposed eight principles* to guide the development of this strategy. In April, a report on the economic impact of eye diseases in Ireland was launched by the Coalition, and highlighted the cost-effectiveness of interventions to prevent eye disease and blindness, showing that significant savings could be made.
These recommended interventions include screening for diabetic retinopathy, which allows for earlier access to treatment, if treatment is required; treatment with anti-VEGF for wet age-related macular degeneration (AMD); screening for cataracts; and access to surgery where needed.
Avril Daly, Chief Executive Officer, Fighting Blindness and joint Chairperson of the National Vision Coalition, also commented on the Seanad debate and how important a national vision strategy will be for those with sight loss and vision impairment. “We are hopeful that this motion will be passed and will encourage the Government to implement our recommendations for a national strategy. We want to ensure that its eight principles are implemented so that service users are prioritised, and avoidable blindness is prevented in the future. It is crucial that we work together to achieve these aims, and we hope Seanad Eireann recognises this today,” she said.
The Government committed to the World Health Organisation (WHO) objectives of Vision 2020 to eliminate avoidable blindness wherever possible by 2020. With just six years left to meet this target, the Coalition’s eight principles have not yet been developed into a much-needed national vision strategy.