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Motion to Recognize May as National Vision Health Month


Hon. Nicole Eaton: Honourable senators, I rise today to join in the debate of Senator Seth's motion, which seeks to address increasing rates of blindness and vision loss in Canada.

Colleagues, no one is born blind but for a very few cases, but every 12 minutes someone in Canada begins to lose their eyesight.

In 2009, the Canadian National Institute for the Blind and the Canadian Ophthalmological Society released a groundbreaking study, "The Cost of Vision Loss in Canada."

According to their findings, the annual cost of vision loss to the Canadian economy is estimated at $15 billion or nearly 2 per cent of GDP. That amount should increase to $30 billion by 2032.

These costs are an enormous burden in Canada and far ahead of most other diseases. A comparison of results from this study with Public Health Agency of Canada data show vision loss accounts for a large proportion, approximately 8 per cent, of the economic burden of illness in Canada.

Then what are the causes of these significant rates of affliction? Age-related macular degeneration is the leading cause of vision loss in this country. Other major causes of vision loss include diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma, cataracts and refractive error. Also, with a higher prevalence of obesity and diabetes than in the past, our key risk factors increase accordingly.

The number of those suffering from vision loss is projected to increase dramatically in the future. One in nine Canadians will develop vision loss by age 65. This is equal to the number of women affected by breast cancer. By age 75, this ratio rises to one in four.

Experts agree that we are on the verge of a crisis in vision care given the aging population.

In the face of this, raising awareness of the debilitating impacts of this illness and its toll on Canadians' wellness is a matter of necessity. It's key, because 75 per cent of vision loss is preventable.

The cost of care is rising, while vision care research and eye disease prevention are underfunded.

The National Coalition for Vision Health, an organization of associations that share a common interest in eye care and vision research, points out that there are no federal agencies in Canada that exclusively fund vision research.

At the personal level, those with vision loss experience three to five times as much difficulty with daily living; three times as much clinical depression; twice as much social dependence; a greater degree of errors with medication; twice the risk of falls and premature death; four times the risk of serious hip fractures; and are likely to undergo premature admission to nursing homes, three years earlier, on average. Half of all adults with vision loss will have a gross annual income of $20,000 or less, regardless of marital or family status.

However, let's look at some of the recent innovations that give us hope of overcoming vision loss.

These include Audible Pedestrian Signals at many pedestrian crossings, automated stop-callouts on many city buses, as well as described video on many television stations.

There are examples of people living with vision loss who are paving the way with tools to help make life easier for their peers.

The first deals with the entrepreneurial spirit of a young lady in Toronto living with vision loss but determined to help herself and others cope with this growing affliction. Sherene Ng is 23 and a student studying adaptive design at Ryerson University. She is living with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic degenerative eye condition that will cause her to go blind. Sherene's symptoms have already begun. That's why she founded a company to develop a new shoe that uses sensors to detect when an obstacle is within step. They won't replace the traditional aids like guide dogs or white canes, but her shoes will work in tandem to assist people with low vision to navigate familiar areas.

Kevin Shaw is another blind visionary at Ryerson University. He has created a prototype for a pseudo Netflix for the blind, which aids in live audio descriptions through a talking play button with the on-demand application.

Groundbreaking scientific study around vision loss is also currently under way at Toronto's St. Michael's Hospital where Dr. Neeru Gupta is an ophthalmologist. She's also Chief of Glaucoma at the University of Toronto. Glaucoma is becoming more common as the population ages and is expected to affect 80 million people worldwide by 2012. About half of all cases remain undiagnosed.

Through her research, Dr. Gupta has determined that glaucoma is a neurodegenerative disease rather than an ocular one, affecting major vision pathways in the brain.

Her most recent study showed that rapid eye movements slow down considerably in patients with glaucoma, even those who are in the early stages of the disease.

Rapid eye movements are the quick, simultaneous movements of both eyes in the same direction.

Rapid eye movement is required in a host of everyday activities, from reading to grasping one's immediate environment, whether it is a busy transit station, grocery store shelves, or oncoming traffic.

People with glaucoma showed delayed eye movement reaction times by about 15 per cent, even if they were in the early stages of the disease. By knowing that eye movement reaction times are delayed in people with glaucoma, there's an opportunity to understand its effect on daily living that most of us take for granted, like walking up and down stairs, driving, navigating and reading. These findings suggest that new approaches to measuring vision loss, beyond eye charts or visual field tests that relate to real-world settings, may provide important clues to how the disease affects the lives of those with glaucoma.

Yet the degree of innovation doesn't end there. Research by Dr. Gupta and her team continues to be visionary. For over half a century, it was believed that lymphatics, which play such a huge role in drainage of toxins from the body, did not exist in the eye. Only recently has it been determined that lymphatic circulation indeed does exist in the eye, aiding in drainage of fluid from the eye. This is important because all glaucoma treatments target drainage pathways to lower eye pressure.

This discovery means that new treatments can be developed targeting the lymphatics to stimulate fluid flow out of the eye, with benefits not only those fighting glaucoma, but that could aid in treating immunity issues, the spread of cancer and many other eye diseases.

This discovery has enormous implications in terms of investigating how this circulation works, what might drive it to work harder and how it might be applied in the treatment of disease, in the sense of being directly relevant to patients with potentially blinding diseases and giving them hope in terms of vision loss prevention, and by bringing about industry opportunity in the development of new pharmaceuticals and pushing more innovation as we learn more about these new discoveries.

We must invest in vision. We must create a strong, modern movement that addresses vision health and promises to put an end to preventable blindness in Canada.

Let us integrate vision care into a strong national health system that addresses primary and secondary health care and treats avoidable blindness. Let's shorten the time from discovery to patient application.

We need to create an environment that is conducive to encouraging unique interdisciplinary collaborations to tackle vision loss.

Let's get physicians, surgeons and medical scientists working with biotechnicians, engineers and the computer science community to boldly deliver bionic eyes and introduce further technological innovations.

Dr. Gupta eagerly pointed out the extent of the opportunity being laid at our doorstep, since nowhere in the world is there yet such an institute that would bring together in a bowl of concepts and marshal multiple disciplines to overcome preventable vision loss.

Honourable senators, there is no reason why the economic stimulus plan should not include measures for vision care.

We can do this by increasing productivity through re-entry of rehabilitated workers into the workforce, by reducing tax burden to fund health costs through greater employment for those being treated with vision loss, and by achieving direct health system savings as affliction is diminished.

In closing, honourable colleagues, the cost of eliminating avoidable blindness is much lower than the cost paid by society for it.