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The Trust commends progress achieved across the Caribbean to tackle blindness caused by diabetes
Screener graders from Jamaica work to assess the level of retinopathy in the eye

The Trust commends progress achieved across the Caribbean to tackle blindness caused by diabetes

This week, the Trust's Chief Executive Dr Astrid Bonfield CBE is in the Caribbean to meet with Government officials and leading eye health experts to thank them for their efforts to prevent blindness caused by escalating rates of diabetes across the region.

With the prevalence of diabetes in the Caribbean almost 50% higher than the global average, the Trust has been working with partners in Belize, Dominica, Jamaica and St Lucia since 2015 to help reduce the number of people at risk of blindness from its sight-threatening complication, diabetic retinopathy. The Trust is working alongside national governments to help strengthen public health systems and ensure that people with diabetes have access to the screening and treatment they need to prevent sight loss. 

Diabetes is the leading cause of blindness in working-age adults and in Belize, for example, 14.7% of the population have the condition, compared to the global average of 8.8%. Diabetic retinopathy occurs when poor control of blood sugar levels, high blood pressure and high lipid levels in the blood damage the blood vessels in the retina. If left untreated, it can lead to irreversible blindness. Over half of all people with diabetes are unaware they have the condition, and by the time their vision deteriorates it is often too late for treatment. Regular screening, early treatment, and careful health management can help prevent vision loss by 95%.

As diabetes rapidly becomes a global epidemic, diabetic retinopathy is now the fastest growing cause of blindness globally. The Trust, together with its coordinating partner the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has worked with Ministries of Health in the Caribbean to integrate screening and quality treatment for diabetic retinopathy into the care provided for people with diabetes. By focusing on strengthening health systems, the aim is to implement an effective screening and treatment plan that will not only protect the sight of those people who currently have diabetes but also those who will develop the condition in the future.

As part of the measures taken to improve access to quality eye care for people with diabetes, equipment and training has been provided to health care professionals, and referral systems strengthened. Awareness raising campaigns have been delivered to highlight the issue of diabetes and encourage healthy eating and exercise – two of the main ways to prevent the disease from developing in the first place. Information is made available to those with diabetes highlighting the risk it poses to sight and of the need to attend annual eye tests. 

Since 2015, across the four countries nearly 10,000 people with diabetes have had their eyes screened and over 1,300 people have received treatment which has saved them from irreversible blindness. The aim now is to scale-up the screening and treatment services successfully implemented as part of this programme, to increase coverage and reach more people across the region who may be at risk of losing their sight.

Speaking about the work in the Caribbean, Dr Astrid Bonfield said:

“I commend all that has been done so far to ensure that systems are in place to effectively tackle the world’s fastest growing cause of blindness. The efforts of Caribbean Governments and our partners to increase public awareness of the condition and to improve eye care services is outstanding and is ensuring people are protected against this tragic and avoidable form of blindness each and every day.

I am very grateful to the Ministries of Health for their engagement in and leadership of the Trust’s programme. Ensuring that people with diabetes continue to receive regular screening for diabetic retinopathy and prompt high-quality treatment when needed remains a priority. When Commonwealth Heads of Government met in London earlier this year, they agreed that they would “take action towards achieving access to quality eye care for all…”. Continuing to provide quality eye care for all people with diabetes is a strong response to that commitment - and one in which the Trust is very proud to have played a part.”

The Trust was established in 2012 to create a lasting legacy in honour of Her Majesty The Queen as Head of the Commonwealth. The work undertaken in the Caribbean since 2015 to prevent people with diabetes from losing their sight now and in the future forms a core part of the Trust’s legacy.