More people than ever before are at risk of avoidable blindness with the rapid escalation of diabetes around the world, The Fred Hollows Foundation has warned.

Acting CEO Nick Martin said World Diabetes Day today was a reminder of the link between diabetes and an insidious form of blindness known as diabetic retinopathy.

One million Australians are living with diabetes and more than 590 million people globally are expected to have the disease by 2035.

Many people are unaware that diabetes could cost them their sight, but around half of those with diabetes will develop diabetic retinopathy within 15 years. One in ten people with diabetes already have vision-threatening damage to their eyes.

In Australia, around eight people lose their sight every day from diabetes-related eye disease.

Diabetic retinopathy results from damage to the smallest blood vessels in the retina. The effects are irreversible and there are often no early warning signs.

Nick Martin urged anyone living with diabetes to have annual eye exams, to monitor for damage.

“Already an estimated 32.4 million people around the world are blind, yet four out of five of them don’t need to be,” Mr Martin said.

“Around 80% of people living with diabetes are in low- and middle-income countries, where many vulnerable communities struggle to access eye screening and treatment.

“The Fred Hollows Foundation is determined to eliminate avoidable blindness and the epidemic of diabetic retinopathy is a big challenge ahead.”

The Fred Hollows Foundation recently won $500,000 in the Google Impact Challenge to develop handheld tablets called MARVIN, to instantly detect the early signs of blinding retinopathy caused by diabetes. The devices could be used by health workers globally to check the eyes of people in remote communities, provide an on-the-spot diagnosis and suggest a management plan.

The Foundation is also co-funding a five-year Centre for Research Excellence project to combat diabetic retinopathy, with the Australian Government’s National Health and Medical Research Council.

The partnership will dramatically cut the time taken to screen, diagnose and monitor the eyes of Indigenous Australians, who have a much higher risk of diabetes-related blindness, by making electronic patient records and retinal images available to all health practitioners, ophthalmologists and optometrists.