Missed eye exams during pandemic could lead to millions of untreated glaucoma cases


Underserved communities most at risk 

A leading cause of blindness in the world is a category of eye disease called glaucoma. The most common form results in increased eye pressure that damages the optic nerve. This can result in permanent vision loss as the disease progresses. 

For Black populations, glaucoma strikes up to a decade earlier and worsens faster than it does for White populations. Latinos are also at heightened risk. There is no cure for the disease, but the effects of glaucoma can be slowed or stopped if identified early through routine screenings.

Glaucoma is often referred to as a “silent thief of sight” because there are no early symptoms, which is why 50% of people with glaucoma don’t know they have it. 

Over 76 million people suffer irreversible visual impairment as a result of the disease. An effect of strokes can cause the same condition affecting a further 33 million patients. 

Beginning as early as 40 years old, Black males especially are more likely to develop glaucoma. Black and Latino populations overall are four to five times more likely to develop glaucoma than others.

Further, more than 75% of Latinos are unaware of the increased risk of glaucoma associated with their ethnicity. It’s predicted that by 2050, half of Americans living with glaucoma will be of Latino origin. 

There are a host of other risk factors beyond race and age. Glaucoma tends to run in families. If someone in the family has it, there’s a good chance others do too. Having certain medical conditions, like diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and sickle cell anemia—all illnesses seen at higher rates in the Black community—could increase the risk of glaucoma dramatically.

Obesity and/or having a smoking habit are other factors to watch for, medical experts warn.

Currently, glaucoma screenings are mostly conducted on a machine called a Humphrey Field Analyzer (Zeiss). This, like other equipment common to an ophthalmologist’s office, is in a dark room, includes a chin rest, and requires a patient to be absolutely still while a staff technician instructs them through the exam. 

This method has been standard for decades, but new methods of comparable, maybe superior accuracy, are available. 

Heru (www.seeheru.com) has developed a wearable diagnostic platform using commercially available AR/VR head-mounted displays. Heru’s portable headset can conduct a screening test for glaucoma, age-related macular degeneration, and other vision impairments anywhere, at any time—even in remote locations. 

Programmed with state-of-the-art sensors and software, the tech removes the need for bulky, stationary, and expensive diagnostic equipment. Heru’s platform does not require a dedicated darkroom or testing space. An onboard virtual Heru personality is programmed to walk patients through the exam eliminating the need for a staff tech to administer the screening. 

Despite the advances in simplified screening technology and the enhanced risk of glaucoma for Black and Hispanic communities, disparities were found in eye care utilization compounding an often preventable condition for them. In a recent analysis, fewer Black and Hispanic people had their eyes routinely checked than did White people, and they also experienced more eye-related incidents requiring medical care than Whites.

The COVID-19 pandemic also exacerbated glaucoma rates by preventing people from getting the recommended annual checkups and exams. The effects of the pandemic made a bad condition worse by allowing the disease to quietly progress without giving especially vulnerable populations an opportunity to protect against it.

Preventing blindness due to glaucoma requires identifying it before vision loss begins to occur. If caught early enough, steps can be taken to avoid the progression of the disease. 

The Centers for Disease Control recommends that people with diabetes should have an eye exam every year and that people who are at higher risk for glaucoma, African Americans 40 years and older, all adults older than 60—especially Mexican Americans—and people with a family history of glaucoma should have an eye exam every 2 years.

To learn about the risk of glaucoma in African American communities, go to www.glaucoma.org/glaucoma/african-americans-and-glaucoma.php

Source: Pinkston News Services