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Hong Kong has recorded ‘alarmingly high’ rates of glaucoma. Its top university is calling for primary eye care services to tackle the disease


<Published in South China Morning Post, 23 February 2024>

- University of Hong Kong and charity Orbis publish data showing 8 per cent of those tested in joint study have irreversible degenerative eye disease
- HKU scholar attributes increase to strong results from patented screening technology from university and hopes new system can be used in programmes worldwide

Hong Kong’s top university is calling on local authorities to introduce primary eye care services after a joint research effort with a charity uncovered “alarmingly high” rates of glaucoma among residents.

The University of Hong Kong (HKU) and non-profit organisation Orbis on Friday published data showing about 8 per cent of more than 1,100 residents who underwent screenings had the irreversible degenerative eye disease.

The research team compared the results with the last population-based study in the region to screen for glaucoma among those over the age of 50, which was carried out in Guangzhou in 2006 and recorded a prevalence rate of just 3.8 per cent.

They also warned that 93 per cent of Hongkongers who tested positive were unaware they had the disease.

Christopher Leung Kai-shun, chairman and clinical professor at HKU’s department of ophthalmology, said: “It’s very important to set up a primary eye care service delivery model.

“We hope that based on the findings that we have, we are able to convey the message to the government the importance of primary eye care [and] about the importance of detecting eye diseases early.”

Glaucoma is a common condition and is considered the leading cause of irreversible blindness worldwide. The disease occurs when the optic nerve, which connects the eye to the brain, becomes damaged.

It is commonly theorised to result from a fluid build-up in the front part of the eye, which increases pressure on the nerve.

But the research team on Friday said that 89 per cent of those diagnosed in its screening effort had normal levels of intraocular pressure.

The university’s faculty of medicine started working with Orbis last June to carry out a year-long screen drive for elderly residents. The project will run until June of this year.

As part of the initiative, more than 3,000 randomly selected public rental housing residents aged 50 and above have been invited to undergo eye screenings using ROTA, which stands for Retinal nerve fibre layer Optical Texture Analysis.

Researchers said they had already tested 1,159 residents in the city’s Southern, Kwun Tong and Tai Po districts.

ROTA is a patented technology created by the university and provides detailed images of the retina’s nerve fibre layer, allowing doctors to more easily detect signs of glaucoma-related degeneration.

Doctors said the technology would improve the diagnosis accuracy rate for the condition by 30 per cent.

Members of NGO Orbis and the University of Hong Kong showcase the charity’s “Flying Eye Hospital”. Photo: Jonathan Wong

A 64-year-old Hongkonger surnamed Li said he was diagnosed with glaucoma thanks to the programme.

He said he already struggled to clearly focus on nearby objects, but had not considered he might have additional eye issues until he went for the screening, he added.

Li said he had quickly realised part of his central vision had already started deteriorating after receiving the diagnosis.

“I was completely unaware of this problem,” Li said, adding that he was grateful that researchers had detected the condition early thanks to the technology.

HKU’s Leung described the prevalence of glaucoma in Hong Kong as “alarmingly high”, but attributed the figure to strong returns from the ROTA screening technology, rather than serving as an indicator that the disease was becoming more common.

The scholar also said the project would “lay the foundation” for the technology’s use in other parts of the world.

Kenneth Li Kai-wang, chief of service and an ophthalmology consultant at the Hospital Authority Kowloon East Cluster, said Hong Kong’s ageing population had led to a “huge demand” for public healthcare, with long waiting times deterring many from seeking eye-care services.

Residents from lower socioeconomic backgrounds were less likely to sign up for screenings, he added.

“We hope to solicit support from different sectors in Hong Kong to establish comprehensive community-based eye screenings, reaching a wider population and benefiting more citizens,” he said.

Orbis also announced Friday that its “Flying Eye Hospital” was open to the public until March 3 as part of its wider push to promote eye health among residents.

The retrofitted aircraft, which has provided eye health services around the world, has its own operating and recovery rooms for patients.

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