1. I am very happy to join you at the launch of National Eye Care Week 2011. I would like to congratulate the Singapore National Eye Centre for organising the event for the 12th consecutive year. On this occasion, SNEC has also partnered the Health Promotion Board. It serves as an important reminder to all of us on how crucial it is to take care of our eyes.
Is defective vision the new normal?
2. Many of us probably over-use and abuse our eyes without realising it. Our work habits and lifestyle choices contribute to this significantly. Increased demand for near work, such as school work for our children and the nature of our jobs in an urban society, can increase the likelihood of developing myopia. Watching programmes on television excessively and at close range can also worsen our eyesight. The increasing popularity of smart phones in recent years probably hasn’t helped either. I’m sure many of us are guilty of reading or playing games on our smart phones for long stretches without resting our eyes.
3. Today, so many Singaporeans wear spectacles that it may seem to have become the new normal. We might think that developing defective vision is inevitable, and it is just a matter of time before we will no longer have 20-20 vision. Many parents may expect that their children will naturally need spectacles sometime during their schooling years.
4. However, we need not accept this as the new normal. Good vision is possible if we take care of our eyes. There are many ways in which we can and should care for our eyes, such as reducing the amount of near work we do, and increasing our outdoor activities.
Myopia in Singapore
5. Let me touch briefly on myopia, an eye defect which afflicts many Singaporeans. Myopia prevention has been, and must continue to be, an important part of our national eye care strategy.
Trends in myopia
6. The prevalence of myopia in Singapore is one of the highest in the world. 65 percent of our Primary 6 children have myopia, whereas at that same age, just 12 percent of children in Australia and about 30 percent in the UK are myopic. Myopia prevalence further rises amongst our youth: 70 percent of students leaving secondary school, and 80 percent of National Servicemen have myopia. These figures are staggering.
7. To address the high prevalence of myopia in Singapore, HPB launched the National Myopia Prevention Programme in 2001. This programme promotes good eye care habits in schools by working closely with teachers to introduce curriculum changes, such as increasing the time for outdoor activities and reducing the time spent on near-work. The programme also introduced vision screening in kindergartens so as to detect the problem earlier and delay the onset of myopia. HPB, in collaboration with the Singapore Eye Research Institute, also conducted a study on the prevalence of myopia in primary school children.
Preliminary findings from HPB’s study
8. Today, I am happy to share with you some preliminary results from this study, which will be further discussed in the lecture to follow. Every year, for six years (2004-2009), HPB monitored approximately 20,000 primary school students for myopia. Results recently generated show an encouraging trend.
9. Over the period of the study, there was a 5 percentage point drop – from 38 percent to 33 percent – in the number of students with myopia, averaging 1 percentage point drop per year. This could mean that in the 2009 cohort of primary school students, there were 12,500 fewer students with myopia as compared to the 2004 cohort.
10. HPB and SNEC believe that this is the first ever evidence of reducing childhood myopia prevalence in any population worldwide. I commend the efforts that HPB has made over the last decade in reaching out to schools through the National Myopia Prevention Programme.
11. These encouraging findings attest to the good efforts we have made. But more can be done. We started from an unenviable baseline of extremely high prevalence, so hopefully the only way we can go is down. Yet it is already a challenge just to hold our current prevalence of myopia steady, and avoid a further increase.
12. The effort to promote preventive eye care and delay the onset and worsening of myopia, especially in early childhood must involve everyone. Many of our public sector institutions are working towards this cause. SNEC will be establishing a Myopia Clinic next year, targeted at addressing the problem of myopia amongst children and to provide appropriate care and treatment. HPB will be stepping up outreach efforts at preschools and childcare centres, and aims to work with parents in the future to foster healthy eye habits in their children.
13. The community can also play a part. Eye screening can be conducted within the community, so as to be more accessible to residents. Community Development Councils can work with HPB to arrange such screenings. Community organisations can also organise more outings, so as to encourage residents to participate in outdoor activities.
14. Regardless of institutional and community efforts, we as an individual must take charge of our own eye care. Arguably, the most difficult part of caring for our eyes is behavioural change at the individual level. Even if we are aware of what good eye care habits are, we might not practice them on a regular basis. Old habits die hard; I know how difficult it will be to tear you all away from your computer screens and handheld electronic devices, even for a second. But I encourage you to try to get outdoors every now and then with your family, friends, and colleagues.
Eye care and its relationship with management of other diseases
15. We must remember that eye care is not a standalone issue in healthcare. One’s vision can affect, and can be affected by, other health conditions. For example, diabetes, if not well-managed, can lead to diabetic retinopathy, which is damage to the retina due to complications in one’s diabetic condition. In the worst case scenario, this can cause blindness.
16. Good eye care should thus be linked to the management of other diseases, and we should think about eye care in relation to our health in general. Both prevention programmes and treatment should be thought about in a holistic, patient-centric way.
17. For this reason, SNEC and the Diabetic Society of Singapore will be jointly organising a Diabetic Eye Screening event at Suntec City tomorrow, in conjunction with World Diabetes Day which falls on November 14th. If any of you know of diabetic patients, please encourage them to go for this screening.
18. Another good example of how eye care can be linked to the general management of our health is NParks’ Family Incentive Trial, launched in April this year. This is a myopia prevention study that aims to get parents and their children to participate in outdoor activities. After one year of tracking these families’ levels of activity, the data will be used to inform programmes aimed at reducing rates of not only myopia, but also obesity and other chronic illnesses amongst Singaporeans.
19. As our population ages, we also need to be increasingly aware of how age-related eye defects such as cataract and glaucoma might impede the ability of the elderly to remain independent and mobile. As we step up our efforts to support and empower our seniors to age in place, proper and adequate provision of eye care will be amongst the many crucial considerations we will have to make.
20. I am heartened to see a range of initiatives and the amount of work that is being done to tackle eye care and its associated health conditions. The work of SNEC and HPB has and will continue to help many Singaporeans care for their eyes better, see more clearly, and live well. I wish you a successful National Eye Care Week. Thank you.