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Project Takes Eye Health to the People

Snuneymuwx First Nation, British Columbia--How long does it take for a Mobile TeleOphthalmology Project to go from dream to reality, asked Norman Lewsey, executive director of the Inter Tribal Health Authority (ITHA) on Vancouver Island. Five long years, he said. Not so surprising then that the launch of the project would be turned into a big event, complete with feast and speeches from some of the people who had devoted considerable energy to seeing the dream come to fruition. The celebration included the blessing of the teleophthalmology mobile units and traditional First Nations drumming and singing.

Gathered at Snuneymuwx near Nanaimo on April 16 were health representatives full of the hope that their project would bring some equity to First Nations in the area of health services. Vancouver Island residents living in 51 rural and remote First Nations communities at high risk of developing diseases of the retina related to diabetes would soon benefit from a new mobile retinal screening service. The technicians were trained, nurses hired, and two highly motivated doctors were standing by in Victoria ready to make assessments.

Rural and isolated patients have trouble accessing the same levels of health care as other people in British Columbia. Some can't afford to travel to urban centres. Others refuse to leave home. The danger of not getting tested is that diseases that could be treated are left undetected. Patients with diabetes are particularly prone to eye disease that can lead to blindness, and there are more incidences of the occurrence of diabetes in the Aboriginal community than there are in the mainstream population across Canada. The British Columbia First Nations Health Plan estimates that prevalence of diabetes among First Nations people is up to 40 percent higher than for other British Columbians.

Dr. Stanley Shortt, one of the retinal specialists on the teleophthalmology project team, said people born within the past 10 years have a one in three chance of developing diabetes. Worldwide, by the year 2030, 438 million people will (have) the condition. Diabetes is the leading cause of blindness in people ages 21 to 74. Getting tested allows doctors to treat issues before they become problems.

The mobile teleophthalmology units will travel to the patients and send the images of their eyes via a secure link to retinal specialists who will examine, investigate, monitor and treat any problems long-distance. Nanoose First Nation Chief David Bob is the ITHA co-chair. He explained that the units didn't test for vision but for disease and urged everyone to take advantage of this technology when the units are in the communities.

About two million Canadians have diabetes mellitus, one-third without knowing it. Uncontrolled blood sugar levels can cause many health problems, including coronary heart disease and renal failure, retinal damage or retinopathy. People with diabetic retinopathy are 29 times more likely than the general population to become blind.

Diabetic prevalence among the 35,000 First Nations people living within the Vancouver Island Health Authority region is estimated to be 2,200. This population is geographically distributed among some of the health authority's most isolated communities. Health Canada's First Nations and Inuit Health Branch and Canada Health Infoway jointly funded the $1 million teleophthalmology project, contributing $404,000 and $636,000 respectively.

"Improving the health status of Aboriginal people on Vancouver Island is one of VIHA's key priorities, as identified in our five-year strategic plan," said Jac Kreut, Vancouver Island Health Authority board chair. "We are delighted to be a part of this innovative project that gives residents living in remote and rural Vancouver Island communities who are at risk of developing diseases of the retina the same access to retinal screening services that are available to people living in urban centres."

Four primary screening clinics are located on Vancouver Island in Sooke, Nanaimo, Port Alberni and Alert Bay. The screening equipment used in the clinics is portable, and will be taken to remote and rural First Nations communities where needed.

Said Snuneymuwx Elder Bill Seward, he was pleased to have witnessed the launch of the technology in his community. "It's good for our people. It's good for our children."

© Windspeaker. May 1, 2010. All rights reserved.