Glaucoma is the biggest cause of blindness in New Zealand, affecting about 68,000 people. Sadly, one in two victims don't know they are being robbed.
Right now about 34,000 people in New Zealand are going blind but they don't know it.
Glaucoma NZ chairwoman Helen Danesh-Meyer says efforts to detect early signs of the disease must be stepped up to avoid thousands of people going blind unnecessarily.
"In the UK, for example, the public can access free glaucoma eye checks if they come from a family with a history of the disease.
"A family history increases your risk tenfold, so it makes sense if these people are screened early.
"No such screening of high-risk people exists in New Zealand, and we think the Government should consider that here."
It is not enough simply to diagnose glaucoma; more education and support is required for patients, who may not see the seriousness of their condition till it is too late.
About 40 per cent of patients fail to pick up their second prescription for eye drops. "Glaucoma is not called 'the silent thief of sight' for nothing. Most people experience no symptoms until it's too late to repair the damage which has been progressively getting worse over a long period of time.
"The good news is, when glaucoma is picked up early, modern treatments can halt its progression and prevent blindness. There is no cure yet, but it can be successfully managed to preserve sight."
The Health Ministry's chief medical adviser, Sandy Dawson, said there were no plans to introduce free glaucoma screening, however, Professor Danesh- Meyer was welcome to "submit a proposal".
"These proposals are normally considered by the national screening advisory committee," Dr Dawson said.
Meanwhile, anyone with a family history of glaucoma should consult their GP who could then refer them to an ophthalmologist; or see an optometrist who could do the testing, he said.
Glaucoma is a group of eye diseases in which pressure inside the eye damages the optic nerve, which relays signals to the brain.
Internal pressure that gives the eyeball its shape comes from fluid which, in a healthy eye, is produced and flushed out at a constant rate. Glaucoma occurs when the eye's internal drainage systems become clogged, so pressure builds.
There are two main types:
* The more common is open-angle glaucoma, where the eye's drainage system becomes gradually clogged, slowly building up pressure inside the eye. There are usually no warning symptoms.
* Closed-angle glaucoma is caused by a sudden blockage in the eye and pressure builds very quickly. Symptoms include blurred vision, halos around lights, nausea, vomiting, headaches and severe pain.
You may find yourself struggling to find a line of print, bumping into things, noticing a variation in colour from time to time - all these can be signs of glaucoma.
Who is at risk?
It affects 2 per cent of the population over the age of 40 - about 68,000 Kiwis. It is much less common in young people, affecting one in 100,000 children. People with a family history have a fivefold to tenfold increased risk. Short- sightedness (myopia), diabetes, high blood pressure, thyroid disease or an eye injury also increase risk.
Who should be tested?
Everyone should have an eye examination by the age of 45, every five years after that until the age of 60, and three yearly after 60.
How is it treated?
Glaucoma can be treated with eye drops, pills, laser surgery, eye operations or a combination of methods. Treatment cannot restore lost vision, but can prevent further damage.
Many other forms of treatment are coming up, but the best way to prevent the disease is by maintaining a healthy diet that would improve the health of your eye.
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