Glaucoma: How To Avoid Leading Cause Of Blindness

Thousands of South Africans are unaware that they have glaucoma, a leading cause of blindness. In conjunction with World Glaucoma Week from March 10-16, Novartis South Africa urges South Africans to be aware of their risk and to take steps to have the disease diagnosed as early as possible.

Sometimes called the ‘silent thief in the night’ because patients may lose their peripheral vision slowly with no symptoms, glaucoma is a group of disorders that leads to damage of the optic nerve (1). The disease is often associated with increased eye pressure, although it may also occur with normal eye pressure. This slowly progressive disease leads to irreversible loss of vision and can result in blindness if not diagnosed and treated early.

Glaucoma specialist and Ophthalmologist at the Chris Hani Baragwanath St John Eye Hospital, Dr Philip Phatudi, says too few people are aware of their risks. “We see patients daily who come in with another complaint, and we discover they have undiagnosed and advanced Glaucoma,” says Dr Phatudi. “Clearly the message isn’t filtering out that people need to be aware of the risks, and have regular tests if they are in a higher risk group. The nasty thing about it is – once you realize your vision has deteriorated, it is already too late and the damage already caused is permanent.

Dr Phatudi advises any adults with a family history of the disease, people who are short-sighted, and anyone over the age of 40 to have regular eye screenings. People over the age of 40 have a higher risk of developing Glaucoma, and people of African descent have a higher Glaucoma risk than those of European descent.

Glaucoma facts

Glaucoma is a leading cause of blindness worldwide, with up to 70 million people suffering from itand an estimated 10% going blind as a result(2). In South Africa, an estimated 200,000 people have it. Glaucoma can present at any age, although the commonest type – Primary Open Angle Glaucoma – usually occurs after the age of 40. In South Africa, its prevalence is in in people older than 40 is between 4.5% and 5.3%. In whites, 1 in 40 people over the age of 40 years will develop the disease (2%). The prevalence in African-Americans and African-Caribbeans over 40 years of age is 4 times higher. 


If left untreated, most types of glaucoma progress without warning or obvious symptoms to the patient towards gradually worsening vision, and may lead to blindness. It is the second most common cause of blindness worldwide, but despite its prevalence, it is estimated that up to 50% of affected people in the developed countries and as many as 90% of people in under-developed parts of the world, are not even aware they have the disease (3). 

 The most common types are Primary Open Angle Glaucoma (POAG) – a form most frequently encountered in patients of Caucasian and African ancestry – and Angle-Closure Glaucoma (ACG), which is the more common in patients of Asian ancestry. Angle-Closure Glaucoma is often chronic, like POAG, but can sometimes be acute, in which case it usually presents as a very painful ocular condition leading to rapid vision loss.

There is still no cure for the disease yet, but medication or surgery (traditional or laser) can halt or slow down any further vision loss. 

We have technology that is able to detect early features of glaucoma, so we are now able to start treatment at an early stage and slow the progression of the disease. The earlier we detect it, the better,” says Dr Phatudi.

 Aiming to help raise awareness of the risks of Glaucoma, Novartis South Africa will participate in World Glaucoma Week 2019 by supporting health professionals with disease and treatment information for patients. Dr Chris Nathaniel, Medical Head – Specialty Care: Southern Africa at Novartis SA says: “With so many people undiagnosed, we want to help raise awareness of the risks, and inform people that treatment is available to slow down the progression of the disease. We will be supporting clinics and hospitals in a number of provinces by distributing patient information packs,” says Dr Nathaniel.

Who is the author?

Novartis is a a leading global medicines company that uses innovative science and digital technologies to create transformative treatments in areas of great medical need. In their quest to find new medicines, they are consistently rank among the world’s top companies investing in research and development.