The Defense appropriations bill that passed the House Thursday included an additional $5 million for military eye-research funding.
The amendment to the appropriations bill was passed by unanimous voice vote Wednesday. Research funding for severe eye trauma in the appropriations bill was set at $5 million. The amendment, if approved by the Senate, would set military vision-research funding at $10 million.
Eye trauma is the fourth most common battle injury from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the American Legion, but receives the least amount of medical research funding, according to figures from the Blinded Veterans Association compiled from the the fiscal year 2012 Defense appropriations bill.
In the fiscal year 2012 budget, vision research was one of the lowest funded medical programs, receiving $3.2 million. Prostate cancer research received $80 million, autism research received $5.1 million, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the rare neurological condition also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, received $6.4 million.
“If you did it strictly on a ledger sheet it would be $80 million” for vision research, said Rep. Timothy Walz (D-Minn), who introduced the amendment. Walz acknowledged there was no apples to apples comparison because lost limbs or paralysis require tremendous expenditures on equipment.
“Some of these very genuine needs were getting overfed and ophthalmology was getting underfed,” said Michael Brennan, a past president of the American Academy of Ophthalmology and a retired Army eye doctor, who has been to Iraq and Afghanistan numerous times as a consultant.
“Some of these unusual and less compromising conditions were getting a bundle of cash. This balances the books a bit,” Brennan added.
Thomas Zampieri, government relations director for the Blinded Veterans Association, said vision-related injuries can be the most devastating because it prohibits a lot of freedom and can drastically alter people’s careers. Blinded veterans will lose their licenses, are prohibited from working at most jobs and have mobility issues.
Brennan said combat amputees often often readjust to an old lifestyle in a way blinded veterans cannot.
In some cases they must abandon life-time professions.
Col. Bedford “Buck” Boylston, who retired last June as an Army heart and thoracic surgeon, sustained a vaccine-related encephalitis while serving in Iraq in 2009. Because of an adverse reaction, Boylston lost his peripheral vision and sees in double vision. His peripheral vision has largely been restored, but he still sees double from two inches out to 40 inches out. His vision impairment prohibit him from performing surgeries.
“Because I’m a surgeon I’m not really allowed to operate,” Boylston said, “and because it’s an encephalitis I can remember a lot of what I was taught, but I have a lot of problems with short term memory, attention and focus.
Boylston welcomed the additional funding.
“These kids desperately need this stuff. Not two or three years from now. They needed it yesterday,” Boylston said.
Another factor that leads into diminished funding for traumatic eye injury research is the lack of private funding.
Walz said there is little chance the private sector would step up and add additional funding to eye trauma research, as they do with traumatic brain injuries or paralysis.
“There won’t be much research on concussive blasts that cause eye injuries because that doesn’t happen in the private world,” said Walz .
Save for eye trauma experienced by the police, Walz said, few in the civilian population experience the eye damage that combat troops do, especially those whose eyes have been sheared by improvised explosive devices.
“We’re really happy with Mr. Walz’s effort,” Zampieri said. “It was amazing he got it through.”