The disclosure that the number of people (aged 40-80) with glaucoma will increase to about 112 million by 2040 is alarming. Raising the alarm at a symposium in Lagos, Frances Unuode of the Eye Foundation Hospital Group, revealed that glaucoma, one of the leading causes of irreversible blindness worldwide, is disproportionately affecting people in Africa.
Glaucoma, described by medical experts as the silent thief of sight, is a disease that damages the eye’s optic nerve. It usually happens when fluid builds up in the front part of the eye. That extra fluid increases the pressure in the eye, thereby damaging the optic nerve. This can ultimately result in total vision loss and blindness within a few years. But if discovered early, it can be cured or managed, usually with treatment that will last a lifetime.
The situation is particularly worrisome in Nigeria where many people have exhibited acute apathy towards going for medical checks. Thus, many people in the country live with one disease or the other without knowing until the situation becomes dire. It is sad that many Nigerians are losing their vision, due to late detection of the condition.
Blindness from glaucoma is avoidable with early diagnosis and appropriate, sustained, life-long treatment.
However, medical experts aver that the disease is more common in older adults, although it can occur at any age. In most cases, glaucoma does not come with any warning sign. The patient might have a seemingly perfect vision until the condition reaches a stage where reversal is impossible. And vision loss caused by glaucoma cannot be reversed.
Since every Nigerian is at the risk of suffering from glaucoma, we enjoin those above the age of 30 to go for eye screening for glaucoma.
Available statistics show that glaucoma is the commonest cause of irreversible blindness in Nigeria. Over five per cent of people above 40 years suffer from glaucoma. This means that about two million Nigerians suffer from glaucoma. About 20 per cent of those with the condition have been blinded in both eyes by the disease, while only five per cent of the patients are aware of their condition.
The fact that glaucoma does not show signs or symptoms at the early stages and the general lack of awareness of the disease in black people are also major contributors to the glaucoma burden in Nigeria.
Unfortunately, most of the glaucoma patients in the country do not seek medical help until it is too late, notably when the disease has inflicted irreversible damage, causing loss of vision in one eye.
Since the disease is hereditary and runs in families, first degree relatives of sufferers are at a higher risk.
Signs and symptoms of glaucoma include patchy blind spots in the side or central vision. It also causes tunnel vision in the advanced stages. Acute angle-closure glaucoma might be the cause of severe headache, eye pain, nausea and vomiting, blurred vision and eye redness. Even with treatment, about 15 per cent of people with glaucoma become blind in at least one eye within 20 years.
Poverty is a major issue for many glaucoma patients. The treatment of glaucoma is usually life-long, and in Nigeria, the screening machines for the detection of advanced glaucoma are quite few. In a country with over 86 million people living in extreme poverty, it is possible that most patients would be unable to afford the cost of treatment. Therefore, the Federal and State governments must create awareness campaigns about glaucoma across the country. Government should encourage Nigerians to go for eye test while it strives to build more glaucoma screening centres across the country.