World Glaucoma Awareness Week is a global initiative to educate people about the second leading cause of blindness worldwide. This initiative is an opportunity to highlight the importance of glaucoma awareness, early detection and treatment options in the UAE.
Glaucoma is a group of eye diseases that cause progressive damage to the optic nerve at the point where it leaves the eye to carry visual information to the brain.
According to the World Health Organisation, the number of people estimated to be blind as a result of primary glaucoma is 4.5 million, accounting for slightly more than 12 per cent of all global blindness. The primary risk factors that are linked to the individual and the onset of the disease are age and genetic predisposition. The incidence of some types of glaucoma rises with age; its progression is more frequent in people of African origin.
Some forms of glaucoma may occur at birth ("congenital") or during infancy and childhood ("juvenile"); in most cases, glaucoma appears after the fourth decade of life, and its frequency increases with age. There is no clearly established difference in glaucoma incidence between men and women. Other risk factors include genetics and family history, and other conditions including diabetes, which is common in the UAE.
Glaucoma currently affects more than 65 million people worldwide - a number that can be expected to increase as the population ages. Unfortunately, many people with glaucoma are unaware that they have it until there is a large amount of irreversible vision loss.
If left untreated, most types of glaucoma progress (without warning or obvious symptoms) towards damage that may lead to blindness. Once incurred, visual damage is mostly irreversible, and this has led to glaucoma being described as the "silent blinding disease" or the "sneak thief of sight".
It was once believed that the cause of most or all glaucomas was high pressure within the eye (known as intraocular pressure, and sometimes abbreviated as IOP). It is now established however, that even people without an abnormally high IOP may suffer from glaucoma. Intraocular pressure is therefore considered a risk factor, but other factors - such as racial ancestry, family history, high myopia and age - all contribute.
The most common types of adult-onset glaucoma are Primary Open Angle Glaucoma (POAG) - a form most frequently encountered in patients of Caucasian and African ancestry - and Angle-Closure Glaucoma (ACG), which is more common in patients of Asian ancestry. Angle-Closure Glaucoma is often chronic, like POAG, but can sometimes be acute, in which case it usually presents as a very painful ocular condition leading to rapid vision loss.
There is no cure for glaucoma as yet. However medication or surgery (traditional or laser) can halt or slow down any further vision loss. Therefore early detection is essential to limiting visual impairment and preventing the progression towards severe visual handicap or blindness. An eye-care professional can detect glaucoma in its early stages and advise on the best course of action.
Screening involves a mandatory eye pressure check, evaluation of the optic nerve at the back of the eye by a specialist doctor and visual fields test if any changes are seen from previous exams. All tests are pain-free and accurate in assessing the disease when done in a proper ophthalmic hospital or clinic.
Testing should be done every 12 months as screening for those over 40, and can be accompanied by an optic nerve photo if needed.
This disease, while tragic when it strikes, is manageable with early detection. In a nation with outstanding health services, the only thing standing between the public and clear vision is more awareness of this silent thief.
Mohammed Sohaib Mustafa is a consultant glaucoma surgeon at Moorfields Eye Hospital in Dubai