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Older people avoiding eye appointments risk losing their sight

While the coronavirus is yet to reach its peak, it's already becoming clear that the after-effects of the pandemic will take months if not years to be fully known.

One in seven Australians over the age of 50 have signs of age-related macular degeneration (AMD), and the risk for AMD only increases with age. [Source: Shutterstock]
One in seven Australians over the age of 50 have signs of age-related macular degeneration (AMD), and the risk for AMD only increases with age. [Source: Shutterstock]

One of the concerns highlighted this week is that COVID-19 may result in more older Australians losing their eyesight if they continue to cancel their treatments for age-related macular degeneration (AMD) out of panic due to the coronavirus.

One in seven Australians over the age of 50 have signs of AMD, and the risk for AMD only increases with age.

Professor Paul Mitchell AO, National Research Advisor for the Macular Disease Foundation Australia (MDFA) and renowned ophthalmologist (eye disorder specialist), says more and more older Australians are cancelling their eyesight saving injections.

“Ophthalmologists are seeing a worrying increase in the number of people cancelling eye injections," explains Professor Mitchell.

“In my own clinic, up to one third of patients with conditions such as wet (neovascular) age-related macular degeneration (wet AMD) or diabetic macular edema (DME) are skipping these crucial appointments. 

"Wet AMD needs treatment for many years, while DME or diabetic retinopathy mostly needs treatment for one year or so, and may also need laser treatment. However, none of these people have, or are suspected to have, contracted the virus.

“Projecting from my clinic, that means thousands of Australians are gambling with their vision. Without these regular injections, there’s a high risk that people will go blind or suffer significant vision loss, which is often then irreversible."

The Government has been announcing further self-isolation suggestions to older Australians, however, these restrictions stipulate that you should still seek essential medical or health care needs.

But some vulnerable older people may be sticking to this advice too strictly, and those in residential aged care facilities may find it difficult to leave their nursing homes to go to appointments.

Whilst this is a difficult time for all Australians where we have to rethink our day to day movements and whether going to appointments is really necessary, older people are encouraged to continue to look after their health and keep their check ups where possible.

Professor Mitchell wants to remind people that eye injections are considered an essential medical treatment, and any sudden loss of vision in either eye is considered an eye health emergency which does require urgent attention.

MDFA Medical Committee Chair, Associate Professor Alex Hunyor, says specialists are rescheduling the non-urgent appointments or treatments.

“Eye injections are essential medical treatments and need to continue as scheduled. Clinics are taking even more precautions now and waiting rooms must comply with social distancing protocols," says Associate Professor Hunyor.

"Many ophthalmology practices are asking patients to wait in their cars and calling them to come in only when required. Call ahead. Ask what extra protocols are in place, and what precautions you can take."

Professor Mitchell adds that some people were calling ophthalmology practices, concerned they’ll be fined for leaving their home to attend a medical appointment.

“I want to stress, if you have a scheduled eye injection, if you are a family carer, or someone who needs to take a person to a scheduled eye injection, you are not breaching public health measures to attend that appointment," says Professor Mitchell.

"Obviously. If the patient has the virus or has had contact with someone who has been infected, the ophthalmologist should be contacted by phone to re-schedule.’’

A person living in a nursing home needs to ask their aged care provider about the appropriate provisions to ensure they still have access to their eye injection appointments. This is especially important if facilities have stopped certain outside appointments.

“We urge all Australians to take care of their eye health and attend scheduled treatment appointments during the coronavirus crisis," says Professor Mitchell. 

"The last thing we need is to emerge from this pandemic with another health crisis of people who are blind or have severe vision loss as a result of not treating their AMD, or diabetic eye disease.

“We understand people are fearful but, please, ring and speak with your ophthalmologist, or the receptionist."

If you need further information, call the MDFA's National Helpline for advice on 1800 111 709.

For more COVID-19 related information, visit the Aged Care Guide's COVID-19 update page. 

Do you have any questions about the coronavirus that you want answered? Tell us in the comments below or email journalist@dps.com.au.

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