EYE irritation could be an early symptom of a serious health condition, according to a local study into the leading cause of corneal transplants in the kingdom.
Sufferers are being warned to seek immediate medical attention rather than put up with the complaint to ensure they are not suffering from a progressive disorder called keratoconus, better known as a bulged cornea.
The study by a group of Bahraini and international scholars found that 33 per cent of the 298 patients who underwent a corneal transplant had keratoconus.
“The condition is the leading cause of cornea transplant in Bahrain – a local study has proven this – out of all those who underwent a cornea transplant, 33pc had keratoconus,” explained King Abdulla Medical City Ophthalmology Department head Dr Nada Al Yousuf.
“The cornea, the clear dome-shaped window in front of the eye, helps with focusing light into the eyes and keratoconus is found when it thins out and bulges like a cone.
“This shape results in the vision getting blurry and distorted, making daily tasks like reading or driving difficult.”
It is hoped that screening programmes can help aid early detection and prevention of the surgical procedure needed to replace part of the cornea with corneal tissue from a donor, also known as keratoplasty, he added.
Dr Al Yousuf was speaking to the GDN as Bahrain joined countries across the globe to mark World Sight Day aiming to increase awareness on avoidable eye diseases.
The consultant ophthalmic and cornea surgeon said that keratoconus was seen more among teenagers and the young adult population.
“This often affects their daily activities and productiveness,” she added. “Early detection, through screening, is important and we need increased awareness on this condition.
“If there is a sense of eye irritation with depleting vision, and a need for glasses to be often replaced, I would urge people to visit an eye doctor.”
An ophthalmologist can perform a special imaging of the cornea called corneal topography and if the issue is found early enough a treatment plan can be determined.
One treatment option Dr Al Yousuf outlined is corneal crosslinking, which has been shown to stop or delay the progression of keratoconus. A normal, healthy cornea is held together by numerous collagen fibres, but keratoconus weakens them. As a result, the cornea loses its round shape.
Corneal crosslinking uses a combination of riboflavin (vitamin B2) drops and ultraviolet light to strengthen and stiffen the fibres, improving its ability to hold its shape. In some cases, corneal crosslinking can reduce the degree of astigmatism in the months following treatment, according to experts.
The Bahrain study reviewed the available records of 298 patients who underwent a cornea transplant at the Salmaniya Medical Complex (SMC) in Bahrain.
Keratoconus was found to be the leading indication, accounting for 33pc of the total cases, followed by trachoma, a bacterial infection affecting the eyes, 27pc and pseudophakic bullous keratopathies, an irreversible swelling of the cornea after eye procedures, 13pc.
Trachoma showed a statistically significant decreasing trend while keratoconus had an increasing trend.
“Corneal scarring due to old trachoma was the leading indication for keratoplasty 20 years ago in Bahrain,” noted the study. “However, due to improvement of health awareness, hygiene and socioeconomic status, this has regressed with keratoconus becoming the leading indication from 2002 onwards.
“It is the leading indication and showed an increasing trend. It is recommended to perform a keratoconus screening programme for early detection and prevention.”
Other scholars on the panel were Ebtisam Al Alawi (The Eye Centre, Manama), Abdulhameed Mahmood (Prince Sultan Military Medical City, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia), Amani Alzayani, Hajer Al Sawad Khatoon Ali, Maryam Al Khayat and Reem Naser (SMC), Hasan Alsetri (University of California) and Jalal Al Mousawi (Al Mousawi Specialist Centre, Bahrain).
Aggressive eye rubbing as also believed to contribute to the worsening of keratoconus. “Do your best not to rub your eyes often or aggressively,” one leading eye specialist added. “Habitual eye rubbing is often linked to itching from seasonal allergies, so make sure you keep allergies under control as much as possible.”
The Arab Gulf University (AGU) will mark WSD today in line with the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) campaign which aims at raising awareness of the importance of the blessing of sight.
“Our efforts are to draw attention to a global issue of avoidable blindness and low vision, in addition to intensifying public awareness on this concern and influencing policy-makers to support and improve the National Eye Health Programme,” added Dr Al Yousuf.
According to WHO at least 2.2 billion people around the world suffer from visual impairment or blindness, of whom at least 1bn suffer from vision impairment that was preventable or not yet treated, and about 80pc of all cases of low vision globally can be avoided.