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THE FIGHT AGAINST GLAUCOMA

18 May 2013

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World Glaucoma Week


By Jacqueline W. Farris

As the world rounded off commemoration of World Glaucoma Week in March, it was revealed that not less than 4.5 million Nigerians suffer from this incurable disease.  In his bid to address this challenge, the Sir Emeka Offor Foundation has contributed €150,000 to endow a professorship of glaucoma in the Department of Ophthalamology at the University of Mainz, Germany.  This will help to support research on the early detection and treatment of glaucoma. The Foundation has previously contributed more than €100,000 in an effort to find a cure for this most frequent cause of irreversible blindness. The Foundation has also established a Nigerian Fellowship for Cataract Surgery and Glaucoma Management at the same university. Dr. Funmilola Ogun, consultant ophtalmologist and associate lecturer at the College of Medicine, University of Ibadan has received training for her work in Nigeria through this initiative.


There is no cure for glaucoma yet, but innovative and unique treatments are being explored by Dr. Norbert Pfeiffer and his team at the Department of Ophthalmology, University of Mainz, Germany.


By analysing tear fluid and blood samples, Dr. Pfeiffer has discovered that auto-antibodies found in patients can act as markers for detection of the disease. Even though glaucoma is not considered a classic autoimmune disease, these changes in antibody profiles might be used as a screening test. It is known that antibodies develop many years before the clinical onset of the disease, hence, autoantibody profiles have the potential to be powerful and highly specific markers to assist in the diagnosis of glaucoma. This exciting discovery of improved biomarkers for detection may contribute to a better understanding of the genesis of glaucoma, and has the potential to open a new avenue that will radically change treatment options.

What is Glaucoma?
Glaucoma is a chronic neurodegenerative disease and the leading cause of blindness among Africans after cataracts. Intraocular pressure damages the optic nerve that transmits images to the brain, resulting in a gradual loss of vision.  Initially there are no symptoms or pain and the disease can go unnoticed until the situation becomes critical. Without treatment glaucoma can cause blindness within a few years. Blindness from glaucoma is 6-8 times more common in Africans than Caucasians.


People of all ages can be affected by this disease. However, certain groups are at a higher risk of developing glaucoma than others:


•Individuals who have poor vision (short-sightedness)
•Diabetics
•Those who have a family history of glaucoma. Family history increases risk of glaucoma four to nine times.
•Less common causes include blunt or chemical injury to the eye, severe eye infection and blockage of blood vessels in the eye.
•Intake of cortizone


Glaucoma most often occurs in adults over age 40, but can also occur in young adults, children and even infants. Onset of the disease in Africa is common between the ages of 30-40 years, compared with 40-60 years old worldwide. Africans are six times more likely to develop glaucoma and ten times more likely to become blind; ten years earlier than Europeans.

How can Glaucoma be Prevented?
Diagnosis of the disease is difficult, with average detection presently at ten years after onset. The first sign of glaucoma is often the loss of peripheral vision which can go unnoticed until late in the disease.  In some cases, intraocular pressure can rise to severe levels. In these cases, sudden eye pain, headache, blurred vision, or the appearance of halos around lights may occur.


Regular eye exams are the best form of prevention against damage caused by glaucoma. A complete eye exam with an eye specialist every one or two years is key to protecting your vision. Getting informed and staying healthy is also necessary in managing glaucoma. It is important to see your eye doctor regularly so that glaucoma can be treated before long term visual loss occurs. If the condition is detected early enough, it is possible to arrest its development or slow the progression by medical and surgical means.


Remember!  A burglar is on the prowl and he is right around the cornea. This “thief of sight” is neither heard nor seen, and can smash your precious window on the world. It is up to you to arrest glaucoma. Get tested!

Farris is the Director General, Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Foundation, Abuja

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