Diabetes is a leading cause of blindness in Canada

Feb. 06, 2017

St. Joseph’s piloting much needed awareness campaign targeting those that have vision loss - but are unaware

Diabetes is a leading cause of blindness. Those who live with diabetes may be experiencing vision loss and not know it.

As part of a project funded by the Southwest Local Health Integration Network, St. Joseph’s Health Care London embarked on a pilot awareness campaign honing in on those that have diabetes and the importance of getting their eyes checked regularly.

”Vision loss can be sneaky. And people who have diabetes, who feel perfectly healthy, may not realize they have an issue,” says London, Ontario optometrist, Dr. Harry Van Ymeren. “In my practice I have seen it many times, people think they are fine and we discover a problem. The point of screening is to catch it before it becomes too late and treatment is less or not effective.”

Diabetes is a chronic disease that prevents the body from making or using insulin, which in turn leads to increased sugar levels in the bloodstream, known as high blood sugar. The development of early-onset cataracts and glaucoma is more likely in people who have diabetes but the main threat is the effect of diabetes on the retina, the part of the eye that allows you to see.

“This is why screening early and often is so important for those with diabetes,” says Dr. Tom Sheidow, ophthalmologist at the Ivey Eye Institute, part of St. Joseph’s Health Care London. “Diabetes can affect all blood vessels in your body, including those inside your eye. Diabetic eye damage, also called diabetic retinopathy, occurs when there is a weakening of the blood vessels in the retina that can result in swelling of the retina, the abnormal growth of blood vessels and potentially severe bleeding. If diabetic retinopathy is left untreated, blindness can result.”

It is estimated that approximately two million people in Canada have some form of diabetic retinopathy, and it is the most common cause of blindness in people under age 65 and the most common cause of new blindness in North America.

Sarah MacArthur was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of three and as an adult is very cautious with her care. “Sarah is the exception to the rule,” says her optometrist, Dr. VanYmeren. “She ensures she is always proactive and careful and understands the importance of screening. I wish more people who live with diabetes were as diligent.”

In the past three to four years, and only because she has regular screenings, Sarah and her doctor have been seeing some symptoms of diabetic retinopathy. “I had no signs at all,” says MacArthur. “There was nothing that prompted me or made me think something was wrong with my vision. But because of my regular screenings Dr. Van Ymeren found some early indications. We are keeping a close eye on any changes so we know immediately if there is a concern.”

A routine eye examination can diagnose potential threatening changes that can cause blindness. However once damage has occurred, the effects can be permanent.

“People who feel completely healthy are the focus of this diabetes vision screening awareness campaign,” says Dr. Sheidow. “Anyone with diabetes should have their vision checked. Individuals with diabetes, both type 1 and type 2, are at risk for diabetic retinopathy.”

Anyone can see an optometrist; referrals from a family doctor are NOT required. There are many resources to locate an optometrist. Check out opto.ca to find an optometrist, look in the phone book or call a family doctor. For communities without an optometrist seeing an ophthalmologist is an option.

“It doesn’t matter if you see an ophthalmologist or an optometrist, as long as you get your eyes checked,” says Dr. Van Ymeren. “Yearly screening is free for people with diabetes.”

In Ontario, for people living with diabetes, the cost of an eye exam by an optometrist or ophthalmologist is covered through OHIP. Should your optometrist feel more extensive diagnostic tests are needed for a comprehensive exam there may be a fee associated with those tests - as they are not covered by OHIP. However, if you choose, those tests can be performed by an ophthalmologist. Ophthalmologist fees for additional diagnostic tests are covered by OHIP.

For more information about diabetic eye damage and where to find a doctor visit:


For more information:
Amanda Jackman
Communication Consultant
519.646.6100 ext. 47155

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