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Doctors battle Glaucoma at JFK

Doctors at the Liberia Eye Center at the John F. Kennedy Medical Center are battling Glaucoma, a disease that has become the leading cause of irreversible blindness in Liberia.

The disease is something that most Liberians are unfamiliar with across the country. The thought of going blind is frightening, yet this is the reality for many Liberians who are unknowingly battling with glaucoma.

Globally, glaucoma is the second leading cause of blindness worldwide. It is estimated that more than 70 million people worldwide have glaucoma, and this number is expected to increase to 111.8 million by 2040. 

The disease causes damage to the optic nerve and can lead to irreversible blindness if not detected and treated early. 

The prevalence varies by age, ethnicity, and geographical region, with higher rates reported among people over 50 years of age and those of African descent.

Run by L.V. Prasad Eye Institute of India, the Liberia Eye Center’s data shows that the eye center sees approximately 15,000 patients annually. 

Of those patients, 3,000 to 4,000 are cases of glaucoma, with most in advanced stages.

The eye center at JFK also sees many patients with other eye diseases, such as cataracts, the most common age-related eye disease. 

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Other common eye issues include dryness in the eye and pterygium, which is a flesh growth on the eye’s surface, and patients with retinopathy, including hypertensive retinopathy, which is due to blood pressure problems.

The risk of getting glaucoma, according to experts, is higher among certain groups of people. This includes those with a history of glaucoma in the family, adults over 50 years of age, African race, myopia (short-sightedness), and diabetes mellitus.

“It is a silent attacker that catches people off guard and then results [in] potentially irreversible blindness,” said Dr. Niranjan K. Pehere, an ophthalmologist at the Liberia Eye Center at the JFK Medical Center.

The treacherous aspect of this disease, according to Dr. Pehere, is its asymptomatic nature. Dr. Pehere said it leaves people completely unaware until it reaches an advanced stage. 

The prevalence of Glaucoma, Pehere said, is relatively high in Liberia, with approximately 7% of the eye patients he sees annually affected. Dr. Pehere explained that the cases are often very advanced, with treatment only intended to preserve the remainder of vision.

“If we go by the data in our clinic, 7% of the patients that come to us have glaucoma.” 

Dr. Pehere is just one of the few ophthalmologists in Liberia, a country with a population of over 5 million people.   

“If we compare this with other clinics, I mean clinics outside Africa, it is usually three to four percent.”

“So this indicates that there is a lot more glaucoma in the communities. The thing about glaucoma that we see here, almost 70 to 80 percent of cases are very advanced in both eyes and somebody has to escort them to the clinic.”

“We then sadly have to give the bad news that it is already in the advanced stage and there is nothing we can do about it; so that is the current scenario of glaucoma over here.”

The disease known as the silent thief of sight is estimated to affect a considerable number of Liberians who are unaware of their condition because of its asymptomatic nature. 

The challenge then is the limited awareness of the disease and its risk factors. This means many Liberians may not realize that they have the condition until it has progressed to the point of vision loss.

“Glaucoma though does not have a definitive cure, if detected early enough, can be managed effectively by trained eye Doctors,” said Dr. Benetta Collins Andrews, a Specialist Paediatrician and the current Chairperson at the Liberia Medical and Dental Council.

She joined Dr. Niranjan Pehere in the interview to promote awareness as part of activities marking World Glaucoma Week.

She said if appropriate measures are not taken to control the disease, one might just suddenly go blind which is sadly irreversible.

“The percentage of glaucoma in the country would be higher than the clinic data of 7%, but it is still a matter of concern considering that most cases are in the advanced stage,” Dr. Andrews warned. 

Dr. Andrews is encouraging all health workers and the general public to take advantage of the excellent services at the Liberia Eye Center to do their comprehensive eye examination from which she has benefited.

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