Most of us would consider our sight to be one of the most important senses, and fear the impact that sight loss would have on our independence. But eye health, in comparison with other diseases, is still largely neglected by medical research funding.
National Eye Health Week, at the end of September, did much to shed light on the importance of research for saving sight and reducing visual impairment and blindness. On this year's World Sight Day however, it is important to remember that there is still much more that can and should be done.
Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD) threatens the vision of half of individuals over the age of 65, and as many more of us are making it into old age, our chances of developing AMD are looking increasingly likely. That is why potential breakthroughs like the recent stem cell trial conducted at Moorfield, absolutely need financial backing.
AMD's prevalence increases exponentially with age and often leads to an ever increasing degradation of your central vision, literally an expanding black hole, leaving you with only the peripheries to see through. You would not know it to look at someone with it; it does not have the familiar white clouding associated with cataracts. It is an unseen unseeing that is increasingly afflicting older people in this country, and in the developed world.
Why have conditions like these gone unnoticed for so long? Frankly, it is because many people simply consign a degree of sight loss to the ageing process, an inevitability if you will. Also, blindness rarely kills you directly. Thirdly, it is only a condition that we are becoming more aware of in light of the country's ageing population.
It will not be long until the practical consequences of our nation's eye health will be felt; recent analysis by National Eye Research Centre has discovered that over four million people will be living with significant sight loss by 2050, and based on current treatment costs, that will come with a bill to the NHS of 8 billion pounds annually - 6.5 of that spent on the over 65s.
Given that cost burden, and that sight loss is already estimated to be costing the UK economy £22bn per year, it is somewhat troubling that the UK Health Research Analysis has found that barely 1% of combined medical research funding is dedicated to eye diseases.
That 1% applied to the great many diseases that can cause sight loss equates to a very small research pot per condition, especially so for the rare ones.
It would be easy if we could put this down to a simple lack of research projects worthy of funding in this area, but this would be an unfair assessment. National Eye Research Centre, which fundraises for eye research, had to turn down over £700k of 'shovel ready' research projects that could make a huge difference to peoples' lives if successful, but the funds are not there to facilitate them.
What's worse is the lack of research investment is now putting people off entering the sector. Our charity is already seeing fewer PHD applications in this area as, frankly, researchers are turning to disease areas where they can put their ideas into practice. Indeed one of our young protégés is thinking of leaving the ophthalmology field altogether because the funding isn't there to take the projects he wants to lead forward.
A growing dearth in disease area knowledge combined with a lack of projects reaching fruition, set against a backdrop of a growing public health problem, is a recipe for a crisis in health; one that would not be quick to remedy. That is why we need to act now to take the opportunity that World Sight Day presents, to ensure eye health is appropriately prioritised and receives the investment it desperately needs.