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Indigenous eye health gap reduced but work still needed

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Image courtesy: Foter/Deetrak 

One-third of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people reported one or more long-term eye conditions last year, according to the Indigenous Eye Health Measures 2016 report.

Commissioned by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, the report compiled data from a range of sources and presented findings at the national, state and regional levels. Generally, it found there was still a distinct gap between the eye health of Indigenous Australians compared with the rest of the population, but, there were also indications that improvements were being made.   

One of the key findings that emerged from the investigation was that between 2005-2007 and 2013-2015 the age-standardised Indigenous hospitalisation rate for cataract surgery increased by more than 40% from 4,918 to 7,052 per 1,000,000 – a significant statistic considering cataract was the second leading cause of visual impairment. 

Meanwhile, progress was also made in the fight against trachoma, with the prevalence of the infection in children aged 5–9 in at-risk communities falling from 14% in 2009 to 4.6% in 2015.

Minister for Indigenous Health, Mr Ken Wyatt, said the report – the first of its kind in Australian history – was a valuable source of data that would be used to improve eye health through better detection, management and treatment of eye disease.

“This report is important because from here we can build an evidence base for monitoring changes in Indigenous eye health, and identify service delivery gaps at the regional level,” he said.

“[It] indicates that more Indigenous Australians are accessing eye health services provided through specific service programs. The report finds that in 2014-15 more Indigenous Australians received an eye examination than in the previous twelve months; that the gap in accessing cataract surgery compared to non-Indigenous Australians is narrowing; and the rate of blindness for Indigenous Australians has decreased from 1.9 per cent in 2008 to 0.3 per cent in 2016,”
Wyatt added.

However, he also added: “While the report shows improvements are being made in Closing the Gap in Indigenous eye health, more needs to be done.”

This is evidenced by the fact that Indigenous Australians had a lower age-standardised rate of hospitalisations for eye diseases compared with non-Indigenous Australians, but three times the rate for injuries to the eye. Additionally, in 2014-15 the median waiting time for Indigenous Australians – 142 days – was 58 days longer than for non-Indigenous Australians. 

Vision 2020 CEO Ms Carla Northam said the report was an important step toward closing the gap, particularly with regard to Indigenous eye health.

“Indigenous Australians suffer from vision impairment or blindness at three times the rate of non-indigenous Australians. We hope these new measures will help to improve the effectiveness of national eye

health programs,” she said.

“We will recommend that the Indigenous Eye Health Measures 2016 report is referred to the Council of Australian Governments Health Council and its advisory body, the Australian Health Ministers’ Advisory Council.”

Vision 2020 will release its own sector-wide proposal concerning Indigenous eye health in the coming days.