Pacific nations commended for progress achieved in tackling avoidable forms of blindness
A woman with diabetes has her eye screened at an outreach clinic in Vanuatu.

Pacific nations commended for progress achieved in tackling avoidable forms of blindness

Over the past few weeks, the Trust’s Chief Executive, Dr Astrid Bonfield CBE, has met with leading eye health experts in the Pacific to thank and commend them for their efforts to prevent people from going blind across the region.

In the Pacific, four out of five people who are blind don’t need to be, and are so because they don’t have access to affordable eye care. Since 2015, The Trust has been working with Ministries of Health, The Fred Hollows Foundation NZ, The Fred Hollows Foundation and local partners to help bring affordable, quality eye care to people in six Commonwealth countries throughout the Pacific - Fiji, Kiribati, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu - who are at risk of losing their sight to diabetes and trachoma.

Diabetic retinopathy, also referred to as diabetes eye disease, is a complication of diabetes and is the fastest growing cause of blindness globally. It 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 is it often too late for treatment. Regular screening, early treatment, and careful health management can reduce the risk of vision loss by 95%. The Trust, together with its partner The Fred Hollows Foundation NZ, has worked with Ministries of Health to secure permanent changes to health systems by integrating screening and quality treatment for diabetic retinopathy into the care provided to people with diabetes. By making long-term improvements to public health systems, the Trust’s aim has been to protect the sight of all those who have diabetes, as well as those at risk of developing the disease in the future.

Thanks to the commitment and leadership of Ministries of Health, with the tireless work of The Fred Hollows Foundation New Zealand, since 2015, the Trust’s programme has:

  • Screened 42,908 patients across all six Pacific countries for diabetes eye disease;
  • Provided 7,237 patients with sight-saving laser treatment to prevent permanent blindness from diabetes;
  • Led 448 local outreaches across the Pacific, making screening and treatment services available to over 13,600 people with diabetes from remote areas and outer islands;
  • Trained 1,236 primary health clinicians and 854 community health workers in diabetes eye care awareness and primary eye care.

Trachoma is the world’s leading infectious cause of blindness. It is easily spread from person to person and is most commonly found in poor, rural communities with limited access to clean water and sanitation. Repeated infection causes scar tissue to develop in the eyelid, and if left untreated the eyelashes eventually turn inward, scraping the surface of the eye. With every blink, people slowly and painfully lose their sight.

Working with The Fred Hollows Foundation, the World Health Organization and Ministries of Health, the Trust has helped to map the prevalence of trachoma across the Pacific and has helped administer vital antibiotics to those at risk of the disease. Since 2015, the Programme has:

  • Helped administer antibiotics to over 87% of the population in Solomon Islands and 90% of the population in Vanuatu to prevent the spread of trachoma;
  • Trained four Trachoma Master Graders, two Trachoma Grader Trainers and two Recorder Trainers, all certified under Tropical Data (TD) who are playing a vital role in all six countries by tracking progress and identifying where further interventions are required to ensure no-one remains at risk of trachoma.

Such is the progress achieved across both Solomon Islands and Vanuatu that both countries are now preparing the necessary information to become validated by the World Health Organization as entirely trachoma-free.

Speaking about the work across the Pacific Dr Astrid Bonfield said:

“The efforts of the Ministries of Health and our partners in fighting trachoma and providing eye health care across is ensuring people are protected against entirely avoidable forms of blindness each and every day. It has been a true privilege to work across the Pacific to help ensure that people living in some of the world’s most remote communities can access the quality sight-saving screening and treatment they need.

 The Trust has had as its mission to leave a lasting legacy, owned by the Commonwealth, in honour of Her Majesty The Queen. The impact this programme has had already on the thousands of lives across the Pacific - and will continue to have for years to come - is precisely that legacy – and one that could not make us more proud.”

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 across the Pacific since 2015 to prevent people from losing their sight to diabetes and trachoma now and in the future forms a core part of the Trust’s legacy.