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New grant funds research into eye diseases among blacks

  • September 23, 2010

Rates of eye disease and vision impairment among older black  Americans are two times higher than for older whites, particularly for glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy, due in part to less access to proper medical care. With a new grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the University of Alabama at Birmingham is creating a Translational Research Center (TRC) and will work in collaboration with Cooper Green Mercy Hospital/Jefferson Health System to find ways to remove barriers to eye health care and improve the quality of services available.

"Vision impairment is often preventable or reversible if detected early," said Cynthia Owsley, Ph.D., professor of ophthalmology at UAB and principal investigator for the $1.5 million, five-year research initiative. "Previous research has suggested that African-American adults are less likely to receive routine, comprehensive eye care when newly emerging eye conditions could be detected and treated in a timely fashion." 

Owsley says barriers to care include cost, lack of health insurance, communication and trust. The shortage of eye care providers who work in geographic areas with high-risk populations, as well as a shortage of clinics that accept patients who are uninsured, contributes to the problem.

"A partnership between Cooper Green and UAB will be a unique resource to address these pressing issues," said Sandral Hullett, M.D., CEO of Cooper Green. "About 80 percent of adults seen at our clinics are African-American, and about 70 percent have no health insurance. Over 60 percent of them have a diagnosis of glaucoma or diabetes or both."

Studies at the center will focus on primary open angle glaucoma (the most common form of the disease), diabetic eye care and visually impaired persons in need of rehabilitation services. The center also will participate in studies with the CDC and the other TRC sites at Johns Hopkins, the University of Miami and Wills Eye Health System in Philadelphia.

The personal burden of eye disease and vision impairment is heavy, said Owsley, and it causes difficulties in maintaining a high quality of life - it hampers reading, mobility and engagement in social activities.  People with vision impairment are at increased risk for depression, transportation challenges, being unemployed, placement into long-term care, injury and death.  The annual cost of adult vision problems in the United States has been estimated at $51.4 billion. 

The TRC will involve faculty from the UAB Departments of Ophthalmology and Surgery in the School of Medicine, the Departments of Epidemiology and Health Care Policy and Organization in the School of Public Health and the School of Optometry, and physicians and researchers from Cooper Green Mercy Hospital.