03/28/2008 02:48 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Glaucoma: The Thief That Can Rob You Blind

It is a leading cause of blindness around the globe. Yet more than half of the people who have the disease don't even know they have it. No wonder Glaucoma is known as "the sneak thief of sight."

It is a disease characterized by gradual loss of vision resulting from death of the cells in the eye which transmit visual images through the optic nerve to the brain. As the optic nerve becomes increasingly damaged, permanent vision loss and blindness can occur. While early detection is the key to treating and halting the effects of glaucoma, current worldwide estimates reveal that more than 50 percent of glaucoma sufferers in developed countries remain unaware of having the disease. This startling number is as high as 90 percent in many undeveloped nations.

In an effort to fight the disturbing lack of knowledge about this serious health threat, the World Glaucoma Association and the World Glaucoma Patient Organization have announced the first annual World Glaucoma Day, to be observed on March 6, 2008. The day will be marked by awareness and educational events organized by glaucoma institutions and local patient support groups worldwide, as listed on

A driving force behind this first annual observance is Robert Ritch, MD. An internationally renowned expert on the nature and treatment of glaucoma, he is a leading member of the World Glaucoma Day committee for the World Glaucoma Association and co-founder of the World Glaucoma Patient Association. Dr. Ritch is also professor and chief of glaucoma services at The New York Eye and Ear Infirmary, and has co-authored five textbooks and over 1,000 medical and scientific papers, book chapters, articles and abstracts. He frequently lectures and conducts charitable glaucoma medical programs in a wide range of countries, and has trained nearly 100 clinical and research fellows, many of whom occupy academic positions worldwide.

"Because glaucoma strikes so silently and gradually, it is absolutely crucial to educate people about the value of early detection," said Dr. Ritch. "For a disease that causes permanent blindness, it is truly unacceptable that so many people remain unaware of its impact and consequences. Individuals in our country need to be much more vigilant about glaucoma, especially if they fall into one of the higher risk groups."

Persons at high risk for glaucoma should have their eyes examined for the disease at least every two years by an eye care professional. In the United States, at risk groups include: people with a family history of glaucoma, African-Americans over the age of 40, people who are very nearsighted or farsighted, and all persons over the age of 60.

In the early stages of glaucoma, there may be no symptoms and vision can appear to be normal until a large amount has been lost. If undetected and untreated, glaucoma will gradually claim all peripheral vision and move on to cause total blindness. With early detection, glaucoma can be treated with eye drops to lower intraocular pressure. Other standard methods of treatment include laser and operative surgery. Treatment can usually halt the disease, but it cannot reverse the damage that has been done. Glaucoma can develop in one of both eyes.