Recently, the world celebrated World Glaucoma Week, seven long days dedicated to creating awareness to a disease ‘The Sneak Thief of Sight’ which is asymptomatic, it creeps in on you without you knowing and it just takes away your vision. KENECHUKWU EZEONYEJIAKU writes from the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH) where the event took place.
Glaucoma, which is the second cause of blindness after cataract, is the term applied to a group of eye diseases that gradually result in loss of vision by permanently damaging the optic nerve, the nerve that transmits visual images to the brain.
According to eye experts, when one tilts his head to take a full grasp of an image and did not see anything, this could be the first sign of gradual vision loss due to glaucoma, and in this case, it is Primary Open-Angle Glaucoma (OAG), the most common form and leading cause of irreversible blindness with virtually no symptoms.
As a result of this, and in their resolve to save more Nigerians from blindness through this disease that is stealth in operation, the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH), in partnership with Pfizer, gave free eye screening to over 300 Nigerians on World Glaucoma day, where over 30 glaucoma suspects were diagnosed and given appointments for treatment in the two-day screening to mark the event that held at the Guinness Eye Centre of the institution.
Speaking at the screening exercise, a Consultant Ophtamologist and Head, Department of Ophtamology, LUTH, Dr. Adeola Onakoya said that glaucoma is an invisible disease that creeps on someone without him knowing and takes away his vision.
Onakoya who is also the Chairman, Glaucoma Society of Nigeria (GSN), further disclosed that the disease has no cure because the cause is still unknown, adding that it is asymptomatic and also progressive.
“Glaucoma is symptomless. Patients who come to the eye clinic would complain of a red eye, pain in the eye or they are not seeing well. At the early stage of glaucoma, there is no pain, no problem with vision- seeing far, no problem with even reading your book, except if you are reaching an age where you need to augment your vision with glasses.
“But the thing is that what it affects is your peripheral vision. If you are looking straight, you should be able to see to some degree into the periphery. Those are the spots, tiny little spots that glaucoma affects at the early stage and nobody would know that. And by the time it affects your vision, that is straight-ahead vision, then, it is very, very late.
“So, it is asymptomatic and it is progressive, but it has no cure. Nobody knows the cause. And because we don’t know the cause, that’s why it has no cure. All we are just doing is just to try and control it to reduce the number of people who go blind from it because the end result of glaucoma is blindness; whether you treat it or you don’t treat it.
“It is known that 20 to 30 per cent of people who have glaucoma go blind in one eye at least, after 20 years.
“The commonest cause of blindness is cataract. But the thing about cataract is that it is always very visible; people will tell you that there is something white in your eye in most cases and you too, you will see it when you stand in front of a mirror. But you know, the surgery can be done and we put in an artificial lens and the patient is able to see better after the surgery.
“Unlike glaucoma, once you have lost vision from glaucoma, that is it; it is not reversible. And that’s why we are making a lot of noise about it to educate people, let them know that there is a disease called glaucoma.”
The glaucoma expert also revealed startling statistics showing a huge number of Nigerians living with the disease.
According to her, “five per cent of people above the age of 40 years in Nigeria suffer from glaucoma.” “With a population of a 180 million people”, Onakoya said, adding: “this means that 1.8million Nigerians suffer from glaucoma. The population of people above this age in Nigeria, if we assume that they are 20 per cent… because people are living longer now, initially, it was like 17.5 per cent. 20 per cent of a 180 million will give you 36 million. So, out of these 36 million people, five per cent are suffering from glaucoma. Out of this 1.8million, 360,000 are blind in both eyes.
“This is statistics for people above the age of 40 years. We don’t have statistics for children yet. A lot of studies… because Primary Open Angle Glaucoma (POAG) that we are talking about occurs more in adult, although you can have some children from about the age of 18, because before the age of 15-16, it is referred to as Childhood Glaucoma, but the adult glaucoma is from the age of 18.
“And if we take from 18, the figure will be more than what I have given. So it is enormous.”
On whether the disease is preventable, Onakoya disclosed that it is a blindness that one can prevent but cannot prevent getting the disease as the cause is unknown.
She said: “And that’s why we are doing what we are doing- trying to create awareness, educate people to make them know that this is a disease that is progressive. If you don’t do what your doctors are asking you to do, then it may have to progress so fast and blindness is the end result. You can prevent the blindness but you can’t prevent getting the disease.
The consultant ophtamologist who condemned the unfortunate patronage of dispensing opticians, an eye caregiver who she disclosed comes last on the hierarchy of eye care, urged Nigerians to seek care for their eyes only with a qualified ophtamologist.
In her words, “So, it’s like an invisible disease and that’s why it’s also called The Sneak Thief of Sight; it just creeps in on you without you knowing and it just takes away your vision.