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Issue #1643      June 18, 2014

Van offers hope for eye issues

It’s a travelling roadshow with a difference. A 13-metre specialist van landed in Cairns on its long trek to some of Queensland’s most rural and remote Indigenous communities to test and treat diabetes-related eye conditions.

Donald Solomon, from Mossman, gets his eyes checked in the Indigenous Diabetes Eyes and Screening van. (Photo: Koori Mail)

And you certainly couldn’t miss it. Covered in eye-catching Aboriginal artwork and filled with state-of-the-art medical equipment, the Indigenous Diabetes Eyes and Screening (IDEAS) van has already made a significant difference in the lives of those treated in it.

Queensland Aboriginal and Islander Health Council (QAIHC) regional development coordinator Bevan Ah Kee welcomed the initiative and said the project would enhance the work being done by Aboriginal Medical Services (AMSes), particularly in diabetes.

While the project is aimed at preventing blindness in Indigenous communities, Mr Ah Kee said the long-term scope was far more wide reaching. “Our model is based on comprehensive primary health care and we all know that means prevention of the illnesses that impact on our health and wellbeing,” he said.

“What the van is doing is fitting in a piece of that picture. Early detection and early intervention is the key, and so far around 30 people have been detected with cataracts that previously went undiagnosed and that would have led to long-term blindness. What the van does is negate the wait list.”

The two-year pilot project will partner with 27 AMSes around the state, including in Charleville, Cunnamulla and Mount Isa, to provide education, equipment, treatment and specialist support to the tune of $5 million.

Where specialist services are not available, the project will provide the treatment teams to accompany the community visits.

The van will travel to nine regional hubs such as Cairns every four to five weeks and complete up to 10 visits a year in any given community. The Ideas van is expected to provide about 80 clinics this year.

For a few, the treatment they’ve received has brought them back from the brink of blindness, something Professor Paul Mitchell says cannot be underestimated.

One of Australia’s leading authorities on diabetic retinopathy (retina damage), Professor Mitchell, saw about 30 patients from Yarrabah, Mareeba, Mossman Gorge, Innisfail and Ravenshoe last week. He praised the program, including the state-of-the-art technology.

“The aim is to supplement the existing services, not replace them,” he said.

“Diabetes is a common cause of vision loss in Indigenous communities, which have higher frequency of the illness – 30% as opposed to 10% in non-Indigenous populations. That’s a significant difference and one of the areas where we hope to make some changes.

“The program is not just about reducing blindness, it’s about looking at diabetes and linking into other programs and projects. There’s already a telemedicine project and we’re hoping to communicate whatever information comes out of this to practitioners looking after their patients with diabetes.”

Professor Mitchell said the project would also fit into a more holistic model of Indigenous health.

“There’s links with having the AMSes do the retinopathy screening and tying it into people’s annual health checks and perhaps having other tests completed at the same time. We’re not trying to do this in isolation,” he said.

“The reality in Indigenous communities is that diabetes is so often under-diagnosed that by the time it is picked up it’s often been there for five to ten years, and once people lose their vision over a period of time it’s very hard to get it back. That’s where we can provide the initial checks and treatment, but link people into follow-up care as well.”

Koori Mail

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