The President of the International Diabetes Federation, Sir Michael Hirst, has signalled the creation of a new alliance with Australia’s Fred Hollows Foundation to lead a pioneering global campaign against diabetes related blindness.

Story by Paola Totaro in London

The former Scottish MP in Margaret Thatcher’s government is in Melbourne this week to announce details of a collaborative operation to roll out low cost, mass eye screening of people with diabetes in a range of developing nations.

The IDF, an umbrella organisation of over 200 national diabetes associations in more than 160 countries, represents the interests of over 382 million people with diabetes – a number expected to soar to 592 million by 2035.

Brian Doolan, CEO of The Fred Hollows Foundation, warns that diabetes is destined to become the leading cause of blindness worldwide, with an estimated 177 million people at risk of diabetic retinopathy due to poor access to eye health services.

“Urgent action is needed to help people avoid blindness from diabetic retinopathy through access to a sight-saving annual eye examination and better control of their diabetes and blood pressure” he said.

People at risk from diabetic retinopathy – which occurs when blood vessels inside the retina are damaged – are those who cannot properly manage their diabetes, high blood sugar levels and high blood pressure. The condition causes blurred or distorted vision that makes it difficult to work and go about daily life and can lead to blindness without surgery to clear blood and scar tissue.
Fred Hollows’ partnership with the IDF will see a concerted program to:

Advocate for diabetic retinopathy to become a global health priority.
Invest in the global health workforce to allow expansion and improvement of diabetic retinopathy care including prevention, screening, treatment and management.
Invest in strategic research to improve the evidence base in clinical care.
Introduce targeted, specialist awareness programs to improve self management of retinopathy.

Sir Michael said he felt an “instant connection” with The Fred Hollows Foundation from his very first meeting with senior executives. He said he felt an affinity with both the Australian organisation’s internal culture and the work undertaken by its teams over so many years in the field, worldwide.

“The commitment to collaborate means we can work with their excellent record of implementing programs, use the IDF’s global reach and network of outstanding clinicians and bringing the two together to work in low resource countries,” he said.

“The other thing that I am very excited about is that this collaboration will propel diabetes related eye disease upwards in the awareness scale. At a meeting in Brighton [England] in September, all the players involved in saving sight around the world felt a real buzz about the prominence now given to this issue. Trachoma and Glaucoma have been important, big areas but now, diabetic retinopathy is being looked at and I am very, very excited about that.”

Diabetes as a cause od Diabetic Retinopathy

Medical experts warn that all Type 1 diabetes patients will suffer some form of Diabetic Retinopathy while Type 2 patients are likely to experience some form of the disease after 20 years while even people who have yet to be diagnosed with diabetes can suffer some tissue damage.

Speaking from his home in Scotland, Sir Michael told The Guardian that his interest in diabetes began when his youngest child, Kate, was diagnosed with diabetes as a little girl in 1985. The use of glass syringes, discrimination at school and stigma within the community at the time led him to want to campaign for people living with the disease.

“We went through another very rocky period when she was a university student, and in the year after her studies when she wasn’t taking care of herself as much as she should and she developed severe diabetic retinopathy which resulted in vitrectomies in both eyes,” he said.

“Kate also had acute maculopathy (damage to her central vision). The operations were a total success and her visual acuity is as good as it ever was but it is thanks to the brilliant work of a wonderful surgeon to whom we are personally, immensely indebted.”

In the United Kingdom, he said, the Diamond Jubilee Trust has also recently signaled its decision to focus its activities in 2014 on eye health and the saving of sight.

Sir Michael stressed that diabetes is not a disease associated solely with developed nations or “countries of plenty”: “Four out of five new cases are discovered in lower, middle income countries like China, India, Mexico where numbers are soaring, he said.

“It is not just nutrition and diet that has an effect on development of this disease but under nutrition too. Causes are multiple but what is not in dispute is that the vast majority of new cases diagnosed will be in lower income nations and among working age people so, it becomes an issue of employment and work as well”.

Sir Michael joins more than 20,000 delegates attending the World Diabetes Congress in Melbourne from December 2-6.