Eye health experts warn Māori to get check-ups amid rising cases of vision loss

Eye health experts want more Māori to get their eyes checked regularly, as undiagnosed eye conditions are causing long-term vision loss for te iwi Māori. 

A comprehensive review in the Māori eye health, the first of its kind, has found more Māori have keratoconus - a condition that can result in severe loss of vision from a thinning of the cornea over time. 

Arapeta Paea, 24, hadn't noticed there was something wrong with his eyes until he failed his driver's test when he was 17. 

It wasn't until years later that he finally saw a specialist who informed him he had keratoconus which was so severe, he required a cornea transplant in one eye. 

As a top-level kapa haka performer, standing with the 2019 second-placed Te Pikikotuku o Ngāti Rongomai, the diagnosis was a worry. 

"That was a bit of a shock to me, being told that my eyes are terrible, 'probably can't or shouldn't be driving' and 'we've got to do something now before it gets too late'," Paea explained. 

"After the first three weeks of shock and denial, I was trying to figure out how I'd be able to cope with my lifestyle," he said. 

Avoiding situations like this is a major motivator for Occhiali Optometrist owner Renata Watene. 

"It is a very overwhelming surgery to have done," Watene said. "It's a donor cornea. You're getting a body part from someone else. There is no whakaaro Māori around that process." 

There are interventions for keratoconus if it's caught early enough, and Watene is calling for screening in secondary schools. 

Watene is one of only 22 Māori optometrists, or 2.5 percent of the workforce. 

It was by chance that the young kōtiro from Northland knew what she wanted to do from a young age, although it also might be "pre-ordained". 

"I went to a school careers day, one of the parents in the class was an optometrist, and I went home and told my mum I was going to be an optometrist and I never really changed my mind after that," she said. 

"Interestingly enough, I'm named after Renata Kawepō who is a one-eyed Māori chief from Kahungunu." 

Junior doctor Micah Rapata is working towards a speciality in ophthalmology, or the study of the eye - which is another underrepresented area. 

Paea is one of his patients, and he sees many others like him. 

"They can't drive themselves to work, they can't drive themselves to the grocery store to get kai," Rapata said. "It's a real limitation on their quality of life." 

"It's heartbreaking to see whānau who could have been treated had they come earlier, but now too far down the track. You've got to tell them that their vision is basically shot," he said. 

While supporting calls for early screening, Rapata is also encouraging whānau to become donors so they can give those with advanced keratoconus another shot at sight.  

"Sight is an amazing thing and to be able to give that back to whanau members, you know, you can't really put a price on that."