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eye health Eye health in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

This paper summarises the findings of the 2008 National Indigenous Eye Health Survey (NIEHS). It reports the overall prevalence of blindness and vision impairment in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children aged 5 to 15 years and adults over the age of 40 years. The paper also presents some data from the National Trachoma Surveillance and Reporting Unit, Medicare, hospital data and case studies.

What levels of vision loss do Indigenous Australians experience?

Vision loss refers to both low vision and blindness.

  • Over the age of 40 years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have 6 times the rate of blindness of other Australians.
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children have less poor vision than other Australian children.
  • 35% of Indigenous Australian adults report they have never had an eye examination.

What are the main causes of Indigenous vision loss?

The most common cause of blindness in Indigenous adults was cataract (32%), and the most common cause of low vision was uncorrected refractive error (54%) (Figure 1). Refractive errors include near-sightedness, far-sightedness and astigmatism.
In Indigenous children, uncorrected refractive error was the most important cause of low vision (56%) and blindness (33%).

Causes of bilateral vision loss, adults, 2008

Causes of vision loss  

Trachoma is an infectious disease, which if left untreated can result in turned in eyelids, causing the eyelashes to scratch the cornea.

  • Trachoma was found in one-half of the Very remote communities at endemic levels.
  • Australia is the only developed country to still have endemic blinding trachoma.

Refractive error refers to problems with the focusing of light and is a frequent cause of reduced visual acuity.

  • Nearly four-fifths (79%) of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults had self-reported eye problems.
  • 83% with self-reported problems had sought care, but of these, 64% reported that their vision problem had not been resolved.

A cataract is a mostly degenerative condition in which the lens of the eye clouds over, obstructing the passage of light to cause vision loss and, potentially, blindness.

  • Cataract caused one-third (32%) of blindness in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults.
  • About 65% of people with cataract had been operated on.

Diabetic retinopathy (damage to the blood vessels in the retina) is caused by complications of diabetes which can eventually lead to blindness.

  • Diabetes was reported by more than one-third (37%) of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults.
  • 13% of Indigenous Australians with diabetes had visual impairment.
  • But only 20%of those with diabetes had an eye examination in the previous year.

Glaucoma is a condition in which there is elevated pressure within the eye caused by obstruction of the outflow of fluid (aqueous humour).

  • Glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration are still uncommon causes of vision loss in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

More information

More detailed information can be found in Eye health in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (646KB PDF).