Melbourne’s fight against eye health crisis

Please note: Images in this article were taken before current COVID-19 safety measures were in place.

Can preventable blindness in Australia’s Indigenous communities be phased out by 2020? Laureate Professor Hugh Taylor and his team at the University of Melbourne are working on it.

Professor Hugh Taylor looking towards camera First, the bad news: 94 per cent of blindness cases in Indigenous adults are preventable or treatable. Moreover, there’s an 11 per cent gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians when it comes to vision loss and blindness rates.

The good news is that Laureate Professor Hugh Taylor AC, a world-leading eye specialist who has been on the research frontline for four decades, is today working on a Closing the Gap for Vision by 2020 project with his team at the University of Melbourne’s Indigenous Eye Health Unit, with the aim eliminating preventable blindness in Indigenous communities by 2020.

They plan to do this by creating a detailed patient care template using research, extensive consultations… and plenty of hard work.

“Restoration of sight to the blind has biblical connotations, but preventing people from losing vision is even more powerful,” says Professor Taylor. “All Australians have the right to sight and the time to act is now: we have 32 months left to get all the regional eye care programs established.”A doctor inspecting a child's eye

Initial results since the 2008 project launch are promising. In 2016, the gap for Indigenous blindness had halved nationally, dropping from six to three times more than the non-Indigenous population. “Although this is still not acceptable it does show the work we’re doing is on the right track and we’re making good progress,” he explains.

A big plus is that the Closing the Gap for Vision patient care template has implications extending far beyond the provision of improved eye care. Its innovative structure of linking primary care with visiting specialist services can be applied elsewhere, such as to ear health, heart disease and diabetes. Or as Professor Taylor puts it: “A patient template that works for eyes will also work for ears, hearts, lungs or kidneys.”

The Fitzroy and Fitzroy Crossing factor

A 2008 national survey by Professor Taylor’s team showed that although Indigenous children had better vision than non-Indigenous children, by the time Indigenous adults reached the age of 40 and above, they had six times as much blindness and three times as much vision loss (e.g. cataracts, diabetic eye disease and trachoma). Almost all of this was preventable or treatable.

Postcode, it turned out, wasn’t the primary stumbling block. “To our surprise, we found the unmet need in Melbourne’s Fitzroy is similar to that in Fitzroy Crossing in remote Western Australia,” Professor Taylor says. “In remote areas, we need to increase provision of optometrists and ophthalmologists, but in Fitzroy, the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service is less than a kilometre from the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital, the largest eye hospital in the Southern Hemisphere. Clearly, what’s lacking in both locations – and in fact across the whole country – is adequate access to, and use of appropriate services.”

Melbourne to host the World Ophthalmology Congress

Melbourne will host the biannual 38th World Ophthalmology Congress in February 2022, tipped to be the largest conference ever secured for Victoria and forecast to attract more than $85 million into the state. Established in 1857, it’s the world’s longest continuous international medical meeting, bringing together some 15,000 ophthalmologists from more than 140 countries. “We’re very excited with the Victorian Government’s support: this is a major international congress organised by the International Council of Ophthalmology, of which I’m the president,” says Professor Taylor. “Hosting will allow us to show the excellent research work taking place in Melbourne and Australia. We’ll also be setting up a legacy project, giving eye health professionals from developing countries the opportunity to broaden knowledge and skills alongside other delegates.”

Photos courtesy of the University of Melbourne