HEALTH experts have warned of a potential blindness "epidemic" in Ireland unless action is taken to prevent sight loss.
The number of blind or vision-impaired people in Ireland is expected to break through the quarter of a million mark within a few years, an expert group says.
There are already 220,000 people suffering from sight loss here - but the figure is forecast to rise to 272,000 by the year 2020, according to the National Coalition for Vision Health in Ireland.
The group said research has shown that the majority of these cases can be medically managed to prevent sight loss moving to total blindness.
Siobhan Kelly, chief executive officer of the Irish College of Ophthalmologists, who is also a member of the expert group, said people in Ireland were living longer and there was a responsibility to provide the best healthcare available.
"It makes absolute long-term economic and social wellbeing sense to put resources and investment in place to ensure we don't reach epidemic eye health problems in the future that could have been avoided," she said.
The expert group report found that 75% of blindness is preventable and that treatment for sight loss in Ireland is expected to cost the taxpayer more than 2.5 billion euro a year by 2020.
People with vision loss are up to eight times more likely to fracture a hip and three times more likely to be depressed, the study says.
The report has called for the setting up of a new national co-ordinating committee to promote eye health along with the appointment of an additional 19 consultant ophthalmologists and 14 community ophthalmologists.
The expert group said the Irish health care system was not well enough resourced to treat the sheer number of vision-impaired patients, despite treatments being available that could help up to four in every ten people with sight loss.
Des Kenny, chief executive officer of national sight loss organisation NCBI, which set up the expert group, said a lack of a co-ordinated response by the Government was hindering the fight against blindness.
"Whilst we thoroughly welcome the establishment of the Health Service Executive (HSE) National Programme for Eye Care, we believe that a National Vision Strategy needs to be developed to complement the programme," he said.
"It is only when both of these initiatives are properly implemented that we will have a truly coordinated eye health infrastructure focused on prevention and early intervention."