BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – Brunei’s growing elderly population and high rate of diabetes puts the public at a higher risk of blindness and visual impairment, an ophthalmologist from the Ministry of Health (MoH) has said.

“Eighty per cent of blindness is actually avoidable, preventable and treatable,” said Dr Hjh Helena POKSJ DP Hj Hurairah, explaining that illnesses such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease can also affect sight. 

More than 12 percent of Brunei’s population suffers from diabetes, which can cause cataracts and diabetic retinography, an abnormality of blood vessels at the back of the eye.

“We would like to make sure we have a good screening programme so that people don’t reach that point,” she added.

Lack of awareness on the importance of eye care may also lead to patients delaying treatment for things like cataracts, which can be treated through surgery. The last available statistics from MoH show that 700 cataract surgeries were conducted in 2011. 

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“Brunei already has a good eye care system in place, and with any system, we should strive for continuous improvement, as well as making sure that the healthcare system doesn’t stay stagnant.” 

Dr Hjh Helena POKSJ DP Hj Hurairah with one of her patients on board the MD-10 aircraft, the world’s only ophthalmic teaching hospital. Photo: Courtesy of ORBIS International

The ophthalmologist recently returned from Mongolia as part of a three-week programme with the non-profit ORBIS International, an organisation that aims to transform lives through the prevention and treatment of blindness. 

Reflecting on her experience, Dr Hjh Helena said she will work closely with paediatric health services in Brunei to ensure the young population has unrestricted access to early vision screening.

“Even children can get cataracts, glaucoma and undiagnosed refractive errors. The trouble with children is that they only have a window of the first seven years to get their vision to the best that they can. After that, getting them to a better level of vision is very difficult.”

Adults over 40 are recommended to have annual eye checkups, because after 40, one’s eyesight tends to deteriorate, she added.

The Eye Centre at RIPAS Hospital will be organising World Sight Day on October 14 to focus attention on avoidable blindness and visual impairment. 

“Working together with local NGOs such as Brunei Darussalam National Association of the Blind, we aim to increase public awareness about eye disease prevention and care, and to eradicate any social stigma that may be around common treatable eye conditions such as squints and cataracts,” the doctor added.