A research study to understand the prevalence of eye disease and visual impairment across Malta and Gozo continues.
Launched by ophthalmic surgeon Francis Carbonaro in 2019 through funds secured via RIDT, the project aims to establish reliable data on eye health in Malta that could be game-changing for local health services.
Addressing a national health loophole
Once complete, the Malta Eye Study promises to boost the island’s records on eye health.
While studying for his PhD at King’s College in London, lead researcher Francis Carbonaro noted that other European countries keep governmental records of the eye health of their respective populations – yet Malta does not have easily accessible data on ophthalmology.
This lack of robust, reliable data available on blindness and common eye diseases such as cataracts, diabetic retinopathy and glaucoma, and the prevalence of eye disease across the Maltese islands, has far-reaching implications regarding the nation’s health as a whole.
The Malta Eye Project will address this public healthcare loophole through the streamlined collection of eye health data from around 2000 individuals from across Malta and Gozo, (approximately one per cent) between the ages of 50 and 80, looking to both improve local health services and determine if there are any genetic or environmental factors, such as climate, that may impact the overall health of the population.
A targeted demographic process
Since the project specifically targets eyes diseases such as glaucoma and cataracts and hopes to determine the prevalence of blindness or visual impairment, it focuses on an older age range who may be more prone to these eye health issues.
The team invites individuals within this key demographic, randomly selected via the Census, to attend a Health Centre for a brief visit in which they are asked to complete a questionnaire, before receiving a full eye test, completely free of charge.
Through the detailed testing process, images are taken of the retina and optic nerve, while details are noted of glasses prescriptions and a DNA sample taken via a harmless saliva swab. As such, all the study’s subjects receive free, specialised optical medical care through the project, and are referred onwards as necessary. Meanwhile, their individual DNA sample is sent for expert examination to uncover any genetic traits that may directly impact the healthcare needs of themselves or their immediate family.
An expert team
At the helm of the Malta Eye Project is Francis Carbonaro, an ophthalmic surgeon and consultant ophthalmologist trained in Malta and at prestigious UK institutions including King’s College in London. Alongside many research papers in several peer-review journals, he has also published a book on Glaucoma surgery.
Under the supervision of Mr Carbonaro and Prof Julian Mamo, PhD student and Higher Specialist Trainee in Ophthalmology Dr David Agius is carrying out the study and collecting the eye health data from the 2000 randomly selected subjects.
The project also offers a valuable opportunity to make a real difference to public healthcare for training medical students, who also assist Dr Agius in the data collection process.
Further project support is offered by leading geneticist Stephanie Bezzina Wettinger, who oversees the delicate storage and genetic testing of the subjects’ DNA samples.
While the Malta Eye project officially launched in late 2019 and the team intended to start the process of data collection shortly afterwards, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 halted the project’s progress due to restrictions.
Nevertheless, as COVID-19 protocols eventually eased in September 2021, the team could at last begin the data collection phase of the project, welcoming around 75 study subjects a month – a process that continues to gain momentum and is now expected to be completed in 2023.
Funding the future of eye health in Malta
The Malta Community Chest Fund (MCCF) Foundation generously financed the initial testing stage of the Malta Eye research project through an agreement with the RIDT in 2017. Additional funding came directly from the University Of Malta.
Yet, similar studies carried out abroad require tens of millions in funding, with most having a permanent team on board who can liaise with the subjects, go out into the field and collect data, using expensive specialist equipment throughout.
Today, continued funding for this vital project is required for the equipment and expertise to complete the study and realise its full benefits for public healthcare – from channelling this powerful data into targeted care for common eye disorders to establishing the role genetics and environmental factors have to play in the nation’s overall health.
Through the RIDT’s vision and the collaboration and generosity of private sponsors, research projects such as these can continue to make a substantial impact on the health of people both in Malta and across the globe.
This project launched through a generous donation from The Malta Community Chest Fund (MCCF) Foundation in agreement with the RIDT and additional funds from the University of Malta.