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Government Initiative Brings Vision Loss Into Focus

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So exactly what are the National Eye Institute's plans to implement these initiatives? Obviously, just publishing some great ideas on eye care will not improve the eye health of the nation.

Michael Davis, associate director for science, policy, and legislation at the National Eye Institute, tells WebMD that the program is in its organizational stage, since the Healthy People programs are forward-looking initiatives. Healthy People 2000 was implemented in 1990. So this current program is just beginning to organize national programs and campaigns to take effect in 2010, and it is still very much in the planning stages.

According to Pronesti, anything that can increase awareness and bring more people into the office to have their eyes checked is important. "You really don't appreciate how important it can be to get things checked until you lose vision or until something goes wrong," he says. However, with some eye problems, if you wait until there is a noticeable change in vision, it is often too late.

Take glaucoma, for instance. "Glaucoma is silent," Pronesti says. "Once you begin to notice that you can't see well, it's way too late, and there's almost nothing you can do at that point."

Early vision loss from glaucoma, he explains, affects tiny pinpoint areas of peripheral vision. These are not usually noticeable to patients, but screening machines that map the side vision can pick up these early losses.

Another serious eye problem is diabetic retinopathy, a very serious disease that affects the retina in people with diabetes; left unchecked, it can lead to blindness. People who have diabetes for longer than 5 years have a more than 50% chance of developing diabetic retinopathy. People with diabetes need regular eye exams and if problems are detected, they need to step up the frequency of those office visits.

Prevention and early treatment are most important for everyone. Davis tells WebMD that one of the goals is a quality of life issue, since vision loss often has a direct effect on how people function day-to-day. People need to be aware of programs, screening, treatments, and devices that can help them see better. Low vision devices designed for people nearly blinded by age-related macular degeneration, a disease that affects the central part of the retina, can help these people read again. But, many people -- including physicians -- don't know that these devices exist.

Public awareness campaigns and free community screenings are the types of programs that often grow out of the Healthy People initiative, Davis says. "What we're hoping to do is to have the organizations that are already established come up with ideas on how to communicate with people better about treatment availability and the means to improve vision," he says. "In many cases, once you've lost your vision, that's it. It cannot be restored."

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