The complications of type 1 diabetes

Figures show 307,400 people in New Zealand had diabetes. Photo: Nick Youngson/Stuff.

Every time Brendan Ward gets his eyes checked, it is a relief to hear they have not deteriorated.

The 43-year-old started to experience problems with his eyes eight years ago, following complications from his type 1 diabetes.

That led to the Brendan man losing his peripheral vision, which also meant he was unable to hold a driver's licence.

"In terms of my mental health, there’s no doubt I hit a rough patch when I found out I wasn’t able to drive."

Some 300,000 New Zealanders were living with diabetes, and they were at risk of having issues with their vision, with diabetes the leading cause of preventable blindness in New Zealand.

Brendan, who works as a senior IT systems engineer at the University of Otago, was diagnosed with diabetes at the age of 10.

He doesn’t recall learning of the side effects when first diagnosed, "but definitely knew of them once I was in my teens".

Looking back at his life, particularly during his teenage years and then in his 20s, "I could have managed my type 1 diabetes a lot better".

He would now tell his younger self to keep getting regular checks, including appointments with doctors, diabetes clinics and the eye department, to prevent side effects developing later on.

He urges those living with diabetes to find a support network, including friends, family and co-workers.

"Type 1 diabetes can also add a huge amount of mental stress and finding a way to deal with this is important."

His diabetes has not prevented him from doing things he wanted to do, but having to surrender his driving licence ‘’made life more challenging’’.

Brendan is a keen cyclist, but notes the inconvenience of not being able to drive.

"Getting anywhere definitely requires a bit more planning and there’s only so much you can carry on a bicycle or on the bus. Cycling is also not the best option for transport in bad weather."

Brendan underwent his first eye surgery in 2014, and six more procedures were to follow.

He remains concerned that he will have further complications, and each time he visits the ophthalmology department at Dunedin Hospital, "it is a huge relief to hear that my eyes have not gotten worse".

"But I am definitely aware that I need to keep on top of things with my type 1 diabetes in order for things to stay this way."

Brendan says soon after having eye surgery, he started using an insulin pump, and later a continuous glucose monitor, which were not available when he was younger.

While that technology would not be a "magical cure"’ for everyone with type 1 diabetes, it could mean fewer people faced complications, like the need for eye surgeries.

And while people can apply for funding for insulin pumps, glucose monitors are not funded.

Brendan hopes both will be funded, especially for those younger people who hved "less frequent interactions with healthcare professionals for assistance and guidance with their type 1 diabetes".

"I feel this is a time where insulin pumps and continuous glucose monitors would play a vital part in helping manage type 1 diabetes."

This November, as part of Diabetes Action Month, Diabetes NZ is calling for New Zealanders with diabetes to get regular eye checks in order to save their sight.

Dr Alison Pereira, a leading ophthalmologist and medical retina specialist, is urging those with diabetes to have regular eye checks to reduce the risk of living with blindness.

"This is a major public health issue," says Alison.

"Regular diabetes eye checks prevent blindness. It’s as simple as that. Often there are no symptoms, and it’s not uncommon for people to lose vision over a few weeks and occasionally lose sight in one eye overnight."

A recent eye health survey by Diabetes New Zealand found 86 per cent of people with diabetes have experienced one or more issues with their vision, while 20 per cent of respondents said they had long-term impaired vision.

The number of people living with diabetes was expected to increase from the current 307,400 to as many as 430,000 by 2040.

-Hamish McNeilly/Stuff.

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