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Pioneering eye surgery could save sight
Ms McHugh and son Ian
Ms McHugh and her son after surgery
A 79-year-old woman has become the first in England and Wales to benefit from new surgery to correct the most common cause of blindness in people over 50 in the UK.

Rose McHugh was the first British patient outside clinical trials to undergo photo dynamic surgery to correct wet age-related macular degeneration (AMD) in an operation at the Royal Liverpool University hospital on Friday.

Ms McHugh, of Wigan, Greater Manchester, has been profoundly deaf since birth and was just months away from losing her sight due to the eye condition.

Macular degeneration. which comes in two main forms - wet and dry, affects two million people in the UK alone, most of whom are elderly. Ten per cent have the wet form.

Some 40% of people over the age of 75 have AMD.

The condition, estimated to be responsible for 50% of all blindness in the UK, is caused by the growth of new blood vessels under the centre of the retina..

These can leak fluid, causing scar tissue to form and destroying central vision in a period of between two months and three years.

Peripheral vision is retained. The condition causes problems reading, seeing small objects and distorted vision.

Sign language

Ms McHugh was already blind in her left eye and used her right eye to understand sign language and communicate with the world around her.

The operation has been successful in clinical trials in Europe and the USA, according to a study published a month ago.

Close-up of Ms McHugh's eye
Wet AMD affects some 16,000 people in the UK
Mr Simon Harding, consultant ophthalmologist at the Royal Liverpool University hospital's St Paul Eye Unit which has pioneered other surgery for macular degeneration, described the treatment as a "huge breakthrough" and of "proven benefit".

He added that there had never been any kind of treatment before for the condition which he said "robs people of their central vision necessary for reading, driving or simply recognising faces".

Ms McHugh had a particularly aggressive form of the condition, which meant she had a 75% chance of losing more vision in a matter of months.

As a result of the operation, Mr Harding said she had an 80% chance of retaining her sight for at least a year.

Great-grandchildren

Ms McHugh said she hoped the operation would allow her to see her 10 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren grow up.

Speaking in sign language through her son Ian, she said: "My biggest wish was to be able to see all the youngsters. I am very close to them all.."

Photo dynamic therapy is thought to be suitable for around a third of patients with wet AMD since it is effective only if the condition is caught early.

It involves injecting a light sensitive dye called Visudyne into the body which sticks to the lining of abnormal blood vessels within the retina. The process takes half an hour.

A light is then shone into the area through a contact lens, activating the dye and causing it to damage the abnormal blood vessels.

The treatment may need to be repeated every three months and costs 900 a time.

Mr Harding hopes that, by the New Year when Visudyne is given a European licence, the surgery will be available in all major eye units across the UK via referral from a GP.

Photo dynamic surgery was first developed by skin specialists in Leeds.

Side effects include lower back pain, a reaction to light and a temporary loss of vision in around 3% of cases.

A spokeswoman for the RNIB said it welcomed the new surgery, but had reservations over the way it was being presented as "a wonder cure".

"We do not know the long-term effects yet," she said.

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The BBC's Clare Smith reports: "In its severest form it causes blindness in just three months"
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04 Dec 98 | Health
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