Senate debates

Wednesday, 26 March 2014



7:02 pm

Photo of John FaulknerJohn Faulkner (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

On 9 March this year, World Glaucoma Week began. That was the sixth World Glaucoma Week, which is a joint initiative of the World Glaucoma Association and the World Glaucoma Patient Association. The theme for this year's campaign was BIG. BIG stands for 'beat invisible glaucoma'. The World's BIG Breakfast was held, in fact, around the world to raise awareness of this eye disease. I think that it is safe to say that Glaucoma Australia, along with their friends and supporters, did make a big contribution to the World's BIG Breakfast.

Tonight, I want to again take the opportunity to highlight the work of Glaucoma Australia and the pressing need for education and early detection in the fight against this debilitating eye condition. Glaucoma is the name given to a group of eye diseases that cause progressive damage to the optic nerve. If left untreated, glaucoma can cause irreversible vision impairment and blindness. The gradual yet irreversible nature of vision loss has led to many to refer to glaucoma as the sneak thief of sight. Initially imperceptible, its damage—as I have said—is irreversible.

In fact, glaucoma is the world's leading cause of irreversible blindness. Nine million people around the world are blind as a result of glaucoma. This number is expected to increase as the world's population ages and grows. As of 2010, there were 44.7 million people in the world with open-angle glaucoma. By 2020, it is predicted to afflict 58.6 million people globally. It is also true that the impact of glaucoma falls disproportionately on the developing world. Ninety per cent of glaucoma goes undetected in those less developed parts of the world.

While these statistics are alarming, the impact of glaucoma in Australia is also considerable. Roughly 16 per cent of all blindness in Australia is caused by glaucoma. One in 200 people at the age of 40 have glaucoma, rising to one in eight at the age of 80. Geoff Pollard, national executive officer of Glaucoma Australia points out that:

About 11,000 Australians are blind from glaucoma at any one time—this is a tragedy that is largely preventable.

Half of all people with glaucoma in Australia remain undiagnosed.

In Australia, the direct healthcare costs alone of glaucoma were estimated at $342 million in 2005. The total annual economic cost of glaucoma for same year was calculated to be $1.9 billion—an annual cost that is anticipated to increase to $4.3 billion by 2025. There are several types of glaucoma yet their cause remains largely unknown. The lack of a single definitive cause and the condition's irreversible impact means that early detection is key.

Glaucoma Australia recommends regular eye examinations, particularly for those in high-risk groups. Those at risk include people with a family history, are short-sighted, have an eye injury, have high eye pressure, have diabetes, suffer migraines, have high or low blood pressure, have a past or present prolonged use of cortisone drugs or steroids or, of course, are aged over 50. It is also important for people who are of Asian or African descent to have an optic nerve check from age 40. Regular eye examinations, the kind that would detect glaucoma, remain too infrequent. One in five Australians have their eyes tested less than once every two years or have never had their eyes tested. Over 300,000 Australians have glaucoma—I am certainly one of them and was diagnosed when I was 25 years of age—yet only half know about it. In my own case, if I had not been diagnosed with glaucoma—as I have said at functions on eye health around this building for many years—at that early age as a result of playing some very poor cricket shots I would be blind six times over. This is a preventable disease and is something that we all need to take into account.

As I said earlier in this contribution, during World Glaucoma Week, Glaucoma Australia promoted the BIG Breakfast—the Beat Invisible Glaucoma Breakfast—to bring attention to the fight against glaucoma at home and abroad. I am pleased to say that the funds raised during these events are being spent on increasing awareness that regular optic nerve checks can preserve sight. The fight against glaucoma in Australia is only a part of a global battle against this condition. Last year in places as disparate as Switzerland, Brazil and India, World Glaucoma Week was marked by conferences, marches, lectures and mass screenings.

We should do everything in our power to ensure that education and early detection becomes best practice, not perhaps just a bitter afterthought in this country and around the world for those who find that they have glaucoma. I am pleased to say that World Glaucoma Week goes some way to achieving this goal. I commend the work of Glaucoma Australia and those many other organisations fighting to end avoidable blindness in this country and beyond our shores, and I hope that the World Glaucoma Week BIG Breakfast has brought more attention to the critical importance of fighting glaucoma.