This autumn, a group of cross-party MPs posed questions to the Department of Health, in an attempt to gather information on the current state of the UK's eye health. George Howarth MP, Derek Thomas MP, Keith Vaz MP and Sir David Amess MP all tabled questions regarding eye health and diabetes. The responses they received proved worrying.
Ministers revealed that they and their officials in the Department of Health are not only unaware of the current situation, but are also totally unprepared for the explosion of eye disease that is set to affect our ageing population in the coming years.
They also admitted to using out-of-date data collated by the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) from 2009 to make their assessments. While it is undeniably laudable work that the RNIB have collected this information, it is also worrying that they are the sole compilers of it, and even more worrying that that this is the principal source of information being used to make current evaluations.
It is evident that there is a real lack of understanding within the Government about an issue that affects the lives of so many people in our country. Recent health trends, like our ageing population and an increase in the number of people with diabetes, mean that any existing assessments of the number of people living with sight loss in the UK are likely to be huge underestimates. Given our latest assessments which have predicted that more than four million people in the UK will have a significant degree of sight loss by 2050, it is an issue that the Government can no longer afford to ignore.
However, we can only begin to combat eye disease in this country once we have a full and comprehensive understanding of it. Investment into research is vital for ensuring that eye conditions are a thing of the past. Significant breakthroughs like the stem cell trial conducted at Moorfield are fantastic, but to achieve similar breakthroughs, there is an undeniable need for substantial financial backing from both the public and private sectors.
Despite the scale of the problem, only a small proportion of medical research spending is directed toward eye disease, barely 2% in fact. Compare this to the amount of funding that goes to other disease groups and eye disease appears significantly underfunded. The UK's eye health is now at a critical juncture; if we carry along on the same trajectory, we are heading for nothing short of a crisis.
Earlier this year the National Eye Research Centre launched a campaign, inSIGHTS to a healthy future, in which we called upon the Government, health and eye care organisations to tackle the growing issue of eye health in the UK, through increased public and private funding.
World Sight Day on the 8 October and National Eye Health Week from 21 to 27 September certainly did a great deal in pushing eye health further up the agenda and promoting the importance of investment into eye research, but much more needs to be done.
The Chancellor's clear commitment to science and research in his Autumn Statement, and his pledge to invest over £5bn in health and research, is also encouraging and certainly a step in the right direction - let's hope some of it is directed toward eye health. If the Government are truly committed to retaining the UK's position as 'the best place to do science' then they must strive to ensure that substantial funding is available for potentially life-changing research in this field.