Potentially blinding eye disease more prevalent than previously thought

March 01, 2004

NOTE: This release has been updated since its original posting.

SAN FRANCISCO--The incidence and prevalence of uveitis, a potentially blinding eye disease, was found to be much greater than previous estimates. A U.S. population-based study, published in the March issue of Ophthalmology, the American Academy of Ophthalmology's clinical journal, showed that the incidence of uveitis was nearly three times that of previous estimates in the United States.

Uveitis is the inflammation of the uvea, the middle layer of the eye. Based on the findings of the study, it is estimated that more than 280,000 people in the United States have problems with the disease each year. Uveitis is responsible for 30,000 new cases of blindness annually and up to 10 percent of all the cases of blindness, causing a tremendous impact on public health. Uveitis can have many different causes including viral infections, fungal infections, toxoplasmosis, bacterial infections, arthritis, autoimmune diseases and as a result of eye injuries. However, the cause in most cases of uveitis remains unknown.

The cross-sectional, retrospective study is the largest to review the incidence of uveitis in the United States. By examining the medical records, the study authors determined nearly 1,000 patients, from medical centers in six northern California communities, all part of the Kaiser Permanente health care system, had a prior history of uveitis, or developed uveitis at some point during the 12-month study period. This showed a prevalence of nearly 117 cases per 100,000 people. The study also reported that uveitis was more common in women and was more likely to develop with advancing age.

The only other U.S. population-based study done reported 204 cases of uveitis over a 10-year period from a small urban community in Minnesota. The highest incidence of uveitis was in people, ages 25 to 44 years, not the 65 years of age and older, as reported in the northern California study. The northern California rate of uveitis was also high compared with other population-based studies from outside the United States.

"This study represents a major step in understanding who gets uveitis," said Ivan Schwab, MD, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology and director of Cornea and External Disease Service at the University of California, Davis. "The investigator's analysis raises very important issues--the increased prevalence of uveitis in women and, the increased rates in older patients. This is a surprise to all of us that work in the field. It is important information."

"These results should alert ophthalmologists that uveitis is more common than previously thought," said study author David C. Gritz. MD, MPH, cornea and uveitis consultant for Northern California Kaiser Permanente and an assistant clinical professor of ophthalmology at the Francis I. Proctor Foundation and the University of California, San Francisco. "This is important since uveitis is a common cause of ocular complications, including blindness. Because the problem is more common in an older population, we need to realize this may require more medical care resources as the population ages. These findings should also alert everyone that more effective treatments for both uveitis and its complications will be important in the future."
Funding for this study was provided by a Permanent Medical Group Innovations Grant and a grant from the Kaiser Permanent Community Benefit Program.

The American Academy of Ophthalmology is the world's largest association of eye physicians and surgeons--Eye M.D.s--with more than 27,000 members. For more information about eye health care, visit the Academy's partner Web site, the Medem Network, at www.medem.com/eyemd. To find an Eye M.D. in your area, visit the Academy's Web site at www.aao.org.

American Academy of Ophthalmology

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