HL Deb 24 January 2001 vol 621 cc258-60

2.52 p.m.

Lord Roll of Ipsden asked Her Majesty's Government:

What plans they have for promoting the treatment of, and research into, age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and for the further provision of services to those afflicted with this disease.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath)

My Lords, the Government, through the Medical Research Council, are funding several major research projects into macular degeneration. Those include a £1.5 million grant to look at genetic susceptibility to age-related macular degeneration, which is due to commence soon. We are also collaborating with the voluntary sector to develop low vision services for people who have lost vision as a result of eye disease, including macular degeneration.

Lord Roll of Ipsden

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his reply. Before pressing him further I must declare an interest as I am afflicted by this condition, although happily for many years it has been stabilised. With regard to the alleviation of sufferers today, an increasing number of devices are available that in terms of the normal costs of the National Health Service are relatively modest in price, yet many sufferers cannot afford them. I believe that recently there was an announcement that additional funding is to be made available for community equipment services. Will the Minister ensure that an adequate proportion of that amount will be available to assist those who cannot afford to buy such devices?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, the noble Lord is right to draw attention to the aids that may be used by low-vision sufferers. This afternoon I cannot give him the complete assurance that he seeks, but I am aware of the issue and I intend to meet the RNIB soon to discuss it.

Baroness David

My Lords, can the Minister give the House assurance about the research that is taking place? I am a fellow sufferer and I was told by my ophthamologist that current research is not much use. Is there a variety of research taking place in different places?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, it is worth informing the House that it is estimated that 1 million people suffer from this condition to varying degrees of severity, but at the moment little is known about the causes of the disease and effectively treatment is only available for about 10 per cent of those who suffer from wet AMD. Clearly, we need a research effort to discover both the causes and the treatment effects. I am happy to place in the Library a copy of the research projects that we know are being undertaken. A large number are taking place, including research projects that are directly funded from the Department of Health and through the Medical Research Council.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, the Question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Roll, referred to treating the symptoms. Am I correct in believing that at the moment there is no actual treatment, except for the rare type of condition to which he referred? Is the research that is taking place to try to discover a treatment?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

Yes, my Lords, and it is seeking to discover the causes as well. The only treatment that is thought to be effective is laser treatment. That is thought useful for about 10 per cent of people who have wet degeneration and who reported their symptoms early. It is clear that this is a major problem for many people in our community and we simply do not yet know enough about the causes and the treatment.

Lord Clement-Jones

My Lords, two years ago the Government made the over 60s eligible for free eye tests. It is important that they should take place so that AMD can be detected and alleviated at an early stage and, if possible, treated. Can the Minister tell the House what resources are devoted to publicising that such eye tests are available? How many people over 60 have had such an eye test?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

Yes, my Lords. The figures for the NHS sight tests have shown a considerable increase since the decision was taken to make eye tests free for people aged 60 or over. In 1998–99, 8,174,000 eye tests were undertaken under the NHS. In the year 1999–2000 that number increased to 10,880,000. As to publicity, I am aware that the RNIB believes that not only should we do more to encourage those over 60 to take advantage of the free eye tests, but also that we should encourage people of 50 and over to have regular eye tests. It is a matter that I am hoping to discuss with the institute shortly to see what further action we can take.