Diabetes is known to be an issue for affluent countries where changing lifestyles, diet and levels of physical activity are well recognised as placing people at risk. Less well known is that diabetes is growing just as alarmingly in middle and low-income countries in every continent. In fact, three quarters of people who have diabetes live in low and middle-income countries, and one in two adults with diabetes is undiagnosed. This is a truly global problem and one that results in the death of a sufferer every six seconds.
Diabetes brings with it the risk of a range of serious complications. One of these complications is damage to the eyes, which if not detected and treated promptly can lead to sight loss and irreversible blindness. People need support to manage their diabetes. Included within their treatment must be regular eye screening to detect potentially serious vision changes early when they can still be successfully treated and sight preserved. Blindness from diabetes is avoidable.
Preventing diabetes through health education and other public health measures, and providing people with diabetes with the support they need to manage their chronic condition throughout their lives - including preventing sight loss - are real challenges for hard-pressed health services everywhere. The Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust is supporting programmes in three Commonwealth regions, the Caribbean, South Asia and the Pacific, to strengthen services to prevent blindness from diabetes, as an integral part of health services and diabetes care. Each programme is tailored to the needs of the region or countries' population and aims to provide a high quality, accessible, cost effective service that is sustainable because it fits with and is integrated into health systems. Each is centred on the needs of the patient and aims for a holistic approach.
We recently partnered with Standard Chartered on a photographic exhibition, "Time to See", which will be on display in New Zealand this month and next, and explores the impact of avoidable blindness, including blindness from diabetes, across the Commonwealth, and the efforts underway to end it. Photos taken by the award-winning photographer Adam Ferguson in Fiji illustrate vividly the impact on people's lives that the complications of diabetes, including blindness, can have. The sense of isolation and the depression they can engender in sufferers are palpable. But the photographs also convey a message of hope for the future: people with diabetes who now have access to screening and treatment will not go blind.
Today is World Diabetes Day. One in eleven adults are diabetic. By 2040, one in ten adults will have diabetes. As the burden of the disease continues to grow, blindness from diabetes is set to increase. Without action, it will become one of the major causes of blindness across the world. We know what needs to be done. The challenge now is to work together to make services available as a matter of course to all those who need them, so that no one with diabetes loses their sight when it could be prevented.
Dr Astrid Bonfield CBE is the Chief Executive of The Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust, a charitable foundation working across the Commonwealth to empower young leaders and end avoidable blindness. www.jublieetribute.org.
Statistics used in this article are taken from the International Diabetes Federation: www.idf.org/.
In partnership with the Fred Hollows Foundation New Zealand, the images from the photographic exhibition Time to See will be on display in the Atrium on Takutai, Britomart in Auckland from 28 November to 04 December and in Wellington Central Library from 06 - 21 December.
Photos are part of Time to See - an exhibition documenting the impact of avoidable blindness across the Commonwealth, www.timetosee.org.