'Epidemic' as diabetes rates soar in the Pacific

Eye care specialists in the Pacific say soaring rates of diabetes have led to a dramatic increase in cases of vision loss and blindness.

It's considered an epidemic in the Pacific, with eight island nations in the world's top 10 countries for diabetes rates.

For example, 40 percent of people with eyesight problems in Fiji have complications because of diabetic retinopathy, while lower leg amputations because of diabetes are happening at a rate of one every eight hours.

One of those who have had their life permanently altered is Pauliani Lagilagi. Once a cleaner, he's not sure when or if he'll work again.

"Everything is very hard for me because of the amputation. I can't walk - [I] just stay home every day," he told Newshub.

However his main concern is his eyesight. He's almost completely blind in his left eye. 

He has diabetic retinopathy, which causes abnormal vessels to grow on the retina.

"What I'm trying to do is just find some areas within the left eye which I can just laser to try and burn out those new vessels from growing," Pacific Eye Institute trainee ophthalmologist Dr Matavesi Telawa told Newshub.

Mr Lagilagi's wife, Ariete Senilegakali, said she's been losing hope.

"I don't think he's going to go back to work in that condition, because of the eye."

Almost half of those arriving at the Pacific Eye Institute in Suva have vision issues associated with diabetes.

"Sometimes they say it's like a tsunami of patients - just the sheer volume of patients who are coming," Andrew Bell, executive director of the Fred Hollows Foundation, told Newshub.

"And the thing with diabetic eye care is that the patients need to come back again and again."

Medical officer Rajesh Sharma told Newshub poor diet and lifestyle are to blame. He said it's an "epidemic".

The local hospital has a ward dedicated to diabetes patients recovering from surgery.

"So every eight hours someone is bound to have an amputation," Mr Sharma said.

Part of the problem is rapid urbanisation and a gradual shift away from traditional home-grown food to imported products, which are convenient and cheap.

Mr Lagilagi believes his reliance on Western food is part of why he's been left so sick.

Specialists say one of the biggest problems in the Pacific is a reluctance to visit doctors.

"Unfortunately our population is not believing in Western medicine," Mr Sharma said.

"They would rather do the traditional medicine for two weeks and only come into the hospital when the foot is rotten away."

Those with deteriorating vision often leave it too late as well. The Fred Hollows Foundation screened more than 78,000 people across the Pacific last year.

The charity's been around for 25 years this week, but with waiting rooms always full, their services will be needed here for many years to come.

Visit hollows.org.nz to help Fred Hollows Foundation and the work they're doing throughout the Pacific.