SPECIAL REPORT/ MEPs have called for urgent measures to increase eyecare, as Europe's aging population and an uptick in chronic diseases threatens a rapid increase in the numbers suffering from impaired vision.

In a meeting to mark World Sight Day in the European Parliament last week (10 October), Peter Ackland, the chief executive of the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness, warned that as the population of Europe ages so the prevalence of visual impairment will rise.

According to Eurostat statistics, by 2050 the proportion of people aged 65 years or more will increase from 17.6% of the population, to 29.9%.

Ageing Europe losing sight

The number of diabetics is set to increase to 35 million by 2030, of whom up to 40% have undiagnosed retinopathy and 3% will go on to have serious visual impairment.

“Preventable blindness has a huge impact on healthcare systems and society as a whole. Approximately one European in 30 experiences sight loss and 75% of partially sighted persons of working age are unemployed,” MEP Ioannis Tsoukalas (European People’s Party; Greece) told the meeting.

This burden is likely to grow due to the ageing population, the growth of age-related chronic diseases, and the devastating health complications chronic diseases create, Tsoukalas said.

The main causes of preventable blindness in Europe are age-related macular degeneration, cataract, diabetic retinopathy and glaucoma.

Because it is a complication of other diseases or health problems, it can be prevented if caught at early stages.

Screening, testing needed to prevent blindness

The Greek MEP said that 50% of blindness in Europe is avoidable through preventive treatment such as appropriate eye testing and subsequent treatment.

“Timely prevention is therefore possible and it is critical to reduce the growing burden of blindness,” he added, claiming that the cost of blindness – including non-medical costs such as home adaptation or the requirement of assistance with daily tasks, amounted to around €11,500 per patient per year.

Irish Independent MEP Marian Harkin joined him in calling for adequate and systematic screening for blindness at national level and more cooperation and adequate referral process between healthcare disciplines. 

Meanwhile a survey published simultaneously by the European Forum Against Blindness (EFAB), revealed that more than half of Europeans (53%) fear vision loss and blindness in the coming years and decades.

The more than 5,000 people polled across in five member states said they feared losing their eyesight second only to memory loss, and twice as much as other conditions such as diabetes.

Call to action in the pipeline

Ackland told the meeting that a range of preventative policies needed to be implemented including public eye health messages, regular sight tests, and the encouragement of exercise.

He also said that vision health remains neglected at European level, as witnessed by the fact that only three European states have adopted “Vision 2020” strategies.

The World Health Organisation and the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness established the global public health initiative, Vision 2020: The Right to Sight, to encourage and promote the development of national eye care plans in 1999.  

Based on the outcome of the Parliamentary event, EFAB aims to develop a call to action and building a solid and sustainable coalition against blindness.