Eye disease is a commonly overlooked health condition. Though a terrifying ailment to experience (indeed surveys often find blindness is the second most feared health condition after cancer), the simple fact that you rarely die from it means it is often neglected by the health service and patient advocacy more generally.
However, this lack of attention flies in the face of some worrying statistics. More than two million people in the UK are living with significant sight loss. This number rises every day as 40 more people lose their sight.
Recent analysis has forecast as many as four million people will be living with significant sight loss by 2050. To what extent this figure fully accounts for the growing threat presented by other diseases that affect eye health is unclear. For example cases of diabetes, which often triggers sight loss, have soared by 60 per cent in the past decade - if that trend continues the eye health picture will only worsen. There are already 3.2 million people already living with diabetes and over a million of them have some form of retinopathy, which can cause complete blindness.
Working with doctors and academics, we have received feedback which paints a worrying vision of eye disease. Eye health is intrinsically connected to a person's broader health. We know that our population is ageing rapidly and sight loss is predominantly endured by the elderly - though it needn't be inevitable. Yet, despite this demographic threat, only one per cent of national medical research expenditure is directed at eye disease.
There are currently over 568,000 people living with macular degeneration, and a similar figure for glaucoma. These are hard to treat, currently incurable and largely age-related eye conditions. At present, 10 million people in the UK are over 65 years old. The latest projections are for 5½ million more elderly people in 20 years' time and the number will have nearly doubled to around 19 million by 2050.
The figures that are recorded on eye disease currently are based on an elderly population that do not face the same health challenges predicted to afflict the current generation.
Flip a coin. It's a matter of heads or tails whether an individual will get a form of Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD) once they're over 65 years old. To date many people have not lived long enough to suffer the physical consequences, but as our population lives longer more and more people will feel the effects - and currently AMD is one of the most expensive conditions to treat on the NHS.
This lack of investment is beyond crisis point, indeed National Eye Research Centre has had to turn down more than £700k of research applications this year due to a lack of funds. The country's wider science sector is also under significant threat, with huge predicted cuts to science and innovation funds administered by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills. Though our charity receives no direct funding from government, reductions to research infrastructure will hurt us all. That is why we recently joined the Association of Medical Research Charities' call to protect the science budget.
Research can make a huge difference, 25 years ago a corneal transplant had a 50/50 chance of success - now it has a 90 percent chance. Cataract procedures are now routine, laser eye surgery is nowadays a very safe procedure - but that is only through years of research.
Sight loss is not only terrifying for those it affects, but is a hugely resource intensive condition to manage. We must take preventative action now, and afford eye health the attention it truly deserves so that we might see a healthy future.