eye examA study found that the rate of blindness in Israel dropped by 56 percent between 1999 and 2008. (Photo: Image Point FR/Shutterstock)

Israel's blindness rate drops 56 percent, study shows

Landmark research represents a turning point in the study of eye health.

A recent study shows that Israel's rate of preventable blindness has dropped considerably.

This finding, published in 2012 in the American Journal of Opthalmology, represents a turning point in blindness prevention and a major advancement in ophthalmology worldwide, experts say.

The study, outlined in a report titled “Time Trends in the Incidence and Causes of Blindness in Israel,” was led by ophthalmologist Dr. Michael Belkin. It concluded that the country’s innovative advancements in the field of eye health, coupled with its universal health care system, resulted in a significant reduction in the incidence of blindness in Israel between 1999 and 2008.

The research applies to four main causes of preventable blindness – age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma, diabetes and cataracts.

For his study, Belkin and his fellow researchers from Tel Aviv University and Sheba Medical Center – Alon Skaat, Angela Chetrit and Ofra Kalter-Leibovici – measured rates of blindness in those four conditions among the Israeli population. They discovered that Israel has reduced its rates of preventable blindness by more than 56 percent, while the rates of untreatable genetic causes of blindness remained steady during the same period.

Belkin said the rates of preventable blindness in Israel dropped from 33.8 cases per 100,000 residents in 1999 to 14.8 in 2010. 

“Israel has emerged as an outstanding player in genetic research for retinal diseases,” said Dr. Stephen Rose, chief research officer of the Foundation Fighting Blindness. Rose’s foundation recently awarded Israel a $600,000 grant toward the goal of recruiting and genetically screening every person in Israel who has been diagnosed with an inherited retinal degenerative disease.

The grant was awarded to a group of Israeli scientists who will conduct this new study over three years, in order to further understand the genetic causes of the disease and continue to reduce its ranks.

“While researchers around the world have identified more than 200 genes linked to retinal diseases, there are perhaps dozens yet to be discovered. The Israeli consortium provides us with favorable demographics and strong expertise to find many more,” Rose said.

In addition to universal health care, other factors contributed to Israel’s dramatic drop in blindness rates, Belkin said. One is the establishment of more community-based programs in the country, like diabetes clinics. Another is the dilution of a drug commonly used for age-related macular degeneration – by diluting the drug for use in the eye, it’s possible to extend inexpensive medication to thousands more patients.

And, Belkin said, Israel has good patient compliance with treatment regimens, including adherence to the correct use of prescribed medications.

Belkin believes it’s possible for every country to implement Israel’s approach to blindness prevention – if they’re willing to make the investment. Preventing blindness before it develops is much more effective and cheaper in the long run than treating it later on, he said.

As Belkin's study ripples across the world of opthalmology, Israel has continued making strides in the field. One notable advancement is an ongoing research program at Hebrew University of Jerusalem that is examining ways to help the visually impaired "see" colors and shapes with their ears. That research involved fitting both blind and blindfolded subjects with a miniature camera that was connected to a computer or smartphone, which in turn was connected to a set of headphones. The computer translated the images from the camera into what the researchers called "soundscapes," allowing the subjects to pick up and interact with objects in front of them.

Another achievement can be found at Lirot, the Israeli Research Association for Eye Health and Blindness Prevention, where a team is screening children from low-income families to prevent and treat common childhood diseases of the eye, as well as instruct parents on ways to improve their children's eye health. 

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