Global Health and Diabetic Retinopathy-“Protect your vision: Steps for someone with Diabetes”

“Diabetes is a chronic disease that occurs either when the pancreas does not produce enough insulin or when the body cannot effectively use the insulin it produces. Insulin is a hormone that regulates blood sugar. Hyperglycaemia, or raised blood sugar, is a common effect of uncontrolled diabetes and over time leads to serious damage to many of the body’s systems, especially the nerves and blood vessels.” -WHO (2018)

The prevalence of Diabetes has increased in low and middle-income countries. Diabetes increases the risk of a range of eye diseases, but the main cause of blindness associated with diabetes is diabetic retinopathy.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), diabetic retinopathy causes blindness in almost 5 million people worldwide. As the leading cause of vision loss in working-age adults, diabetic eye disease thus represents a significant global socioeconomic and healthcare problem.

What is diabetic retinopathy and what causes it? 

Diabetic retinopathy is an eye condition caused by diabetes. It affects the small blood vessels and light sensitive tissues in the back of the eye (retina). This condition is primarily caused due to high blood sugar levels and if left untreated can lead to vision loss.

Am I at risk for vision problems? 

If you have any type of diabetes you can get diabetic retinopathy. This includes people with type 1, type 2, and gestational diabetes, which is diabetes that occurs during pregnancy. Your risk gets higher the longer you have diabetes. More than 2 in 5 Americans with diabetes have some stage of diabetic retinopathy. The good news is that you can lower your risk by controlling your diabetes!

When should I get an eye exam?

The best diagnostic for diabetic retinopathy is a dilated eye exam.

  • If you have diabetes, get a dilated eye exam once a year
  • If you have diabetes and become pregnant, get a dilated eye exam as soon as possible and ask your doctor if you will need more eye exams during your pregnancy

What can I do to prevent diabetic retinopathy?

Losing your vision to diabetic retinopathy is sometimes permanent, but can be prevented. Studies have shown that the best ways to prevent it are to:

  • Keep your blood sugar level close to normal (this also reduces getting kidney and nerve diseases)
  • Control any elevated blood pressure and cholesterol
  • Exercise regularly
  • Choose healthy foods
  • Follow your doctor’s instructions for taking any medications and ask questions about your health

Is there a treatment for diabetic retinopathy?

Yes. However, treatment for diabetic retinopathy is often delayed as symptoms are unnoticeable until the condition starts to progress, or when Diabetic Macular Edema (DME) occurs. DME is when blood vessels leak fluid into the back of the eye, causing swelling. In this case, eye exams would be needed more often, as it becomes more severe. People with more severe cases may need a dilated eye exam as often as every 2 to 4 months. It is important to know that early detection and treatment can reduce the risk of blindness on a global scale.