It is predicted that by the year 2020, the number of people with sight loss in the UK will rise to over 2.25 million. It is also a fact that the prevalence of sight loss increases with age, meaning our ageing population is ever more at risk. In addition, key underlying causes of sight loss such as obesity and diabetes are on the rise. All of which means that, without action, the number of people with sight problems in the UK is set to dramatically increase over the next 25 years.
Losing your sight can be a terrifying experience. The person affected is often faced with a number of difficulties, such as isolation, loneliness, anxiety, lack of self-esteem or low confidence. But it doesn't have to be this way. Through early intervention at the point of diagnosis, people facing sight loss can be helped to manage these natural feelings of despair and helplessness and build towards a new life of independence and opportunity.
The current reality, though, is that all too often newly diagnosed people are left alone and vulnerable, without access to the support they so desperately need. Confirmation of sight loss is devastating news. And it often comes with no practical advice, counselling, support or guidance. This is a terrible predicament for anyone facing this appalling situation.
This is why we at Action for Blind People know that it's vital that people facing sight loss have access to the support they need, right from the point of diagnosis. It's also why we're today taking 10 of our sight loss ambassadors to Parliament to share some of their unique, inspirational and dramatic experiences of sight loss - and the support available - with an audience of healthcare commissioners and practitioners to raise awareness of this important issue.
At the heart of the delivery of this vital point-of-diagnosis support are Eye Clinic Liaison Officers (or ECLOs). Based in hospital eye clinics, ECLOs provide the vital emotional and practical support which lets people facing sight loss know that all is not lost and that they are not alone. Last year ECLOs reached over 9,000 patients. That's a fantastic achievement. However, we know that more than six times that number are in need of ECLO support, which gives you an impression of how far we have to go. The fact is that the majority are only receiving the professional diagnosis of the ophthalmologist, but as soon as they step out of the room, they don't know where to go next for help and support. We cannot allow this to continue.
We're committed, along with our partners, to making sure there is an ECLO available in every eye clinic in the UK in five years' time. We believe this is a tough but achievable objective. ECLOs can be provided by other organisations, working in partnership with us. But our aim is to ensure that people across the UK have access to support early on, whether provided by Action, RNIB or others.
Of course, health care funding today in the UK is limited. Through services like this, we are striving to make a difference. But, if we are to have the greatest possible impact, we need more support from local authority commissioners, health service professionals and other potential funders and partners. Additional funding and commissioning of the ECLO service is desperately needed to ensure a bright future for those affected by sight loss.