Blindness rates cut in Suffolk
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Little more than 10 years ago, to be diagnosed with wet Age-Related Macular Degeneration was tantamount to being told you would lose your sight.
According to specialists at the James Paget University Hospital, this eye condition is the UK’s most common cause of blindness among older people, even though research suggests half of adults have never heard of it.
But thanks to a treatment developed in the last few years the sight of people now developing wet AMD can be saved.
There may not have been the fanfare about it that accompanies some medical breakthroughs, but this procedure - entailing injections into the eye ball every six to eight weeks - is quietly and effectively making a real difference to the lives of many thousands of people and it’s carried out in hospital eye clinics across East Anglia.
Louise Clark’s mother, Grace, 88, was diagnosed with wet AMD four years ago and has to go for regular injections at the West Suffolk Hospital eye treatment centre in Bury St Edmunds.
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“None of us had ever heard of wet AMD until mum was diagnosed with it,” she says. “She was sent straight up to the hospital when she went for an eye examination with her local optician when her vision suddenly deteriorated.
“The hospital eye clinic is wonderful. They monitor her sight regularly and bring her in for injections promptly when she needs them. Although her vision is compromised - she finds it virtually impossible to read now, for example - she can still see, which, I understand, might not have been the case before this treatment was developed.”
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In addition to established treatment centres for wet AMD at hospitals across our region, a new service has been launched in the Waveney Valley by the James Paget University Hospital’s (JPUH) ophthalmology team, who are now performing the injection procedure in new eye clinic facilities at Beccles Hospital.
According to the NHS, AMD affects more than 600,000 people in the UK and is the leading cause of vision loss. By 2020, it’s predicted almost 700,000 people will have late-stage AMD. For reasons that are unclear, AMD tends to be more common in women, white and Chinese people and those over 50. It’s estimated one in 10 people over 65 have some degree of AMD, either dry or wet.
Dry AMD develops when the cells of the macula (the small area at the centre of the retina responsible for what we see straight in front of us) become damaged by a build-up of deposits. It’s the most common and least serious type of AMD, accounting for around nine out of 10 cases. Vision loss is gradual, occurring over many years.
However, an estimated one in 10 people with dry AMD go on to develop the more serious wet AMD, which develops when abnormal blood vessels form underneath the macula and damage its cells. Symptoms include distortion of vision, which means that straight lines look bent, and it leads to blindness within five years without the injection treatment, which only became available 10 years ago.
JPUH consultant ophthalmologist Professor Ben Burton, who specialises in the treatment of AMD, said that the injections were helping save patients’ sight when previously they would have gone blind.
“AMD tends to affect older patients, who may need treatment for the rest of their lives once the condition is diagnosed – and with a population that is ageing, demand is only going to increase,” he said. “Since these injections were introduced, we have seen rates of blindness halve, which is amazing.”
More than 2000 patients are currently receiving the injections at the JPUH’s Gorleston eye clinic – with three new patients being referred for the treatment every week. The creation of the eye clinic facilities at Beccles Hospital will help meet growing demand while providing a service closer to home for residents in Beccles, Bungay, Halesworth and the villages of the Waveney Valley.
Consultant Ophthalmologist Tom Butler, who has overseen the creation of the new facilities, said they represented a significant expansion of the eye services offered at Beccles.
“We now have a treatment suite which has been purpose-built and its high specification means we can offer the wet AMD treatment and not just consultation, which we have been doing at the Beccles site now for 15 years,” he said. “This is an exciting development which is increasing the accessibility of a sight-saving procedure, carried out in new, modern facilities.”
Study offers more hope
Several hospitals in this region are taking part in a ground-breaking research study which aims to reduce or remove the need for ongoing eye injections for patients with wet AMD.
James Paget, Norfolk and Norwich and Essex County hospitals are among more than 20 across the country taking part in the King’s College Hospital-led STAR Study, which investigates the use of stereotactic radiotherapy - accurately-focused x-ray beams - to target the leaking areas in the retina that cause wet AMD.
In the new one-off, non-invasive treatment, three rays of radiotherapy are beamed through the white of the eye to overlap at the macula. Studies have already shown that in carefully selected patients stereotactic radiotherapy can reduce eye injections by about half, with many patients needing no further injections at all, and vision was better than in those who only received eye injections.
It is also more cost effective - injections cost the NHS around £800 each and need to be repeated several times a year, whereas the radiotherapy treatment costs £1,250 but is required only once.