Second annual WGD observance expected to surpass last year

New York-The World Glaucoma Association and the World Glaucoma Patient Association (WGPA) are teaming up with governmental agencies, health-care providers, eye-care industry members, and others to sponsor the second annual World Glaucoma Day (WGD) today, which is expected to surpass last year's efforts.

New York-Glaucoma may be the second leading cause of blindness, but millions of people around the world at risk for the disease still do not get simple, routine screenings that could save their eyesight. That’s why the World Glaucoma Association and the World Glaucoma Patient Association (WGPA) are teaming up with governmental agencies, health-care providers, eye-care industry members, and others to sponsor the second annual World Glaucoma Day (WGD) today. It is estimated that 4.5 million people around the globe have glaucoma, and that number is expected to increase to 11.2 million by 2020.

In more than 70 countries, proclamations have been issued, screening events are planned, and lectures are being given in an attempt to alert more people to the critical need for early glaucoma detection. With early detection, doctors can treat high IOP, a risk factor associated with the disease. Although a cure for glaucoma does not currently exist, medication or surgery can halt or slow the progression of the disease. Vision loss is irreversible, making the need to increase awareness and education efforts all the more urgent.

"We're making a difference, and I have spent a great deal of time [raising awareness of today's activities]," said Robert Ritch, MD, co-chairman of the WGPA's WGD committee. Dr. Ritch also is the Shelley and Steven Einhorn Distinguished Chair in Ophthalmology, professor of clinical ophthalmology, chief of Glaucoma Service, and surgeon director, New York Eye and Ear Infirmary; and medical director and chairman of the Glaucoma Foundation’s scientific advisory board. "[We have received] lots of good feedback."

Proclamations have been issued by dozens of local, state, and national governments, as well as the Orthodox Church in America, declaring March 12 as World Glaucoma Day. The honorary designations urge citizens to inform themselves about the seriousness of the disease and to undergo eye examinations.

The director of the National Eye Institute (NEI), Paul A. Sieving, MD, PhD, called glaucoma "a scientific research priority and a public health concern."

"We at NEI reaffirm our commitment to support research that will identify glaucoma risk factors and lead to treatments that will prevent vision loss and blindness," Dr. Sieving said. He added that the NEI contributes nearly $65 million to fund portions of 168 glaucoma studies, and it initiated the NEI Glaucoma Human genetics collaboration, known as NEIGHBOR, through which seven U.S. research teams will lead genetic studies of the condition. The goal is to discover underlying biologic causes for glaucoma.

"On World Glaucoma Day 2009, we at NEI applaud the efforts of all scientists who are committed to increasing our knowledge of this blinding eye condition," Dr. Sieving continued. "We reaffirm our commitment to increasing public awareness of glaucoma and the importance of regular, comprehensive dilated eye exams through our National Eye Health Education Program."

All over the world, events were held to commemorate the day and increase awareness. In India, screenings were conducted in such cities as Mumbai, Kolkata, and Hubli, and continuing medical education was offered for residents and post-graduates in Hyderabad.

The permanent representative of India to the United Nations issued a statement that calls glaucoma "a silent predator . . . that has left in its wake a trail of human and economic suffering." The statement hails several initiatives taken by the Indian government to earmark "substantial" public health funding for the prevention and treatment of glaucoma, with a particular emphasis on rural areas. It also notes that curcumin, the active ingredient of turmeric, a basic ingredient in Indian curries, might play a role in combating conditions such as glaucoma.

"The solution to many public health challenges of countries such as India may lie in this ability to combine modern technology with indigenous wisdom and local practice," said Nirupam Sen in a prepared statement.

According to the WGD Web site, which tracked many of the events held to commemorate this day, a great number of events were clustered in South America, North America, and Europe. Fewer events were scheduled in Africa and China, and none was noted in Russia and other former Eastern bloc countries or in Japan.

Australia-home country of Ivan Goldberg, MD, co-chairman of WGPA’s WGD committee, clinical associate professor, University of Sydney, and head of the glaucoma unit, Sydney Eye Hospital-is holding a smattering of educational and screening events and securing media coverage.

Dr. Goldberg said that Athens-based George Lambrou, MD, executive vice chair, WGPA, Physician Liaison Committee, once again had served as the global project leader of WGD.

"He has invested a huge amount of time in WGD 2009, even more than he so impressively did for 2008," Dr. Goldberg said.

In the United States, screening events and media coverage were planned on both coasts, including Hartford, CT, and Montebello, CA. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) issued a proclamation calling March 12 World Glaucoma Day in the state of New York. The proclamation praised Dr. Ritch and others who have worked to find a cure for glaucoma.

"Their commitment to this noble endeavor is an inspiration to us all," it said.

The American Academy of Ophthalmology recognized March 12 with a statement from its executive vice president, H. Dunbar Hoskins Jr., MD.

"WGD challenges us to take action to reduce the terrible impact of glaucoma," he said. "Fifty percent to 75% of Americans with glaucoma are unaware that they have the disease. Once vision is lost to glaucoma it cannot be restored, but when we detect and treat it early we can often preserve vision so people can maintain active lives."

When WGD was held March 6 last year, physicians and officials scrambled to organize events and solicit media coverage to coincide with the American Glaucoma Society meeting in Washington, DC. More than 1,200 events were held, which "was truly extraordinary and exceeded our wildest dreams," according to Scott R. Christensen, president and chief executive officer, The Glaucoma Foundation, and president, WGPA, both based in New York.

This year, however, activities have been "dramatically expanded both in their scope and their outreach," Christensen said. "As confidence has [been] elevated, entities have become bolder in attempting more challenging projects in honor of WGD this year."

He said he expects this year’s efforts to surpass last year’s, in part because there has been greater lead time in which to plan and promote events and because last year’s effort laid the groundwork for this year.

That said, much work remains in trying to increase awareness about the disease.

"Many would challenge as far understated the normal number that there are 67 million people with the disease around the world," he said. "Some would say it may be double that figure."

Experts agree that the most effective way to reach individuals at risk is to conduct a screening, Christensen said.

"Despite this belief, there are far too few screenings, and even though the number may be increasing, it is not keeping pace at all with the increasing need for the service," he said. "These initiatives are labor-intensive, time-consuming, not easily arranged, and can be costly despite having volunteers serve in both the lay and professional areas."