A customer receiving an eye exam at Tel Aviv’s Azrieli Center. Photo by Eyal Toueg
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Blindness in Israel declined by 51 percent over a decade as new treatments came online and private medical care became more available, a study at Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer shows.

At Israel's health maintenance organizations, private care is often available to patients with supplemental coverage.

According to the study, in 1999, 33.8 out of every 100,000 Israelis were legally blind. By 2008, that figure had fallen to 16.6. The study found similar declines in most of the causes of blindness.

The incidence of age-related macular degeneration, a disease that affects the retina, declined from 5.9 per 100,000 in 1999 to 3.6 in 2008. That was attributed in large part to special injections that became available in 2003.

The study's findings appear in the current issue of the American Journal of Ophthalmology. The study was directed by Michael Belkin, who heads the ophthalmic technology laboratory at Tel Hashomer and Tel Aviv University.

Blindness from glaucoma also become less prevalent. This condition, which stems from high pressure in the eye, was seen in 1.9 Israelis per 100,000 in 2008 compared with 4.2 in 1999. New drops and laser treatments are now available, Belkin noted.

Blindness due to complications from diabetes is also less widespread, falling from 4.9 per 100,000 to 2.6. This is attributed to the follow-up care the country's health maintenance organizations provide diabetes patients.

Although similar declines were reported in blindness from cataracts, which cause a clouding of the center of the eye lens, the researchers found that from 2004 to 2005 there was actually an increase in blindness from cataracts. They could not explain this, in part because cataract surgery has become easier to obtain in recent years.

"In the past, there was a two-year waiting list for cataract surgery, while now supplemental insurance makes it possible to get operated on immediately at private hospitals," Belkin said. "At public hospitals, the wait has been reduced to just a few days, so there's almost no blindness anymore from cataracts."

The findings also indicate stability in the incidence of hereditary degenerative eye diseases such as retinitis pigmentosa, for which there is no effective treatment at present.

The development of new so-called bionic methods that might return sight to blind patients are in their experimental stages and thus have not yet had a major impact on the statistics, Belkin said.

But he said there are technologies that let the blind distinguish light from darkness, while scientists are also busy researching stem cells.