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Army blind to value of laser surgery

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  • Army blind to value of laser surgery

    Army blind to value of laser surgery
    The Sunday Times July 16, 2006
    Mark Tighe

    IN THE UK you would be welcomed with open arms. If you haven’t got it in America, they’ll even pay for you to get it. But in Ireland, don’t even bother trying to join the military if you have had laser eye surgery.
    The Irish army’s refusal to take recruits who have had laser eye treatment is angering medical experts, who claim the ban is out of step with medical developments.

    Irish regulations say military recruits’ eyesight “must be surgically untreated”. But disappointed applicants are eligible to join the British army, which recently relaxed a similar restriction. British recruits are now assessed individually and must show no side effects 12 months after the treatment, although restrictions still apply to those who want to join certain specialist forces.

    The US Naval Academy has been offering free laser eye surgery to recruits for the past five years. More than one-third of last year’s class of almost 1,000 recruits took up the offer, boosting the number of graduates with 20-20 vision and making them eligible for flight school or special forces.

    The increased number of graduates with “perfect vision” means the competition for coveted roles is tougher, and officers say this has increased standards as well as prolonging the time that pilots and special forces can serve in the field.

    One potential Irish defence forces recruit, who didn’t want to be named, said the ban meant he would be forced to go abroad to complete his dream of a military service.

    “I’m thinking of having laser surgery carried out,” he said. “My glasses are a pain when I’m out in the hills and the fog, or when rain comes rolling over the mountains. I’d prefer to serve my own country, but if it comes to it I’d be prepared to take the Queen’s shilling in order to pursue a military career.”

    Gerry Rooney, general secretary of PDFORRA, the defence forces union, said it was surprising the rule hadn’t been updated. “We will be engaging with the defence forces on this as whoever is making medical decisions is a bit more cautious and appears not to be reviewing the decision in light of current evidence,” he said.

    An increasing number of people who need perfect eyesight in their profession, or who find wearing glasses impractical, have opted for laser eye surgery. Top golfers Padraig Harrington and Paul McGinley had the procedure to improve their long range vision and competed in tournaments just days later. Actor Ewan McGregor had laser surgery so he wouldn’t need glasses on his round-the-world bike tour in 2004.

    The Mater Private hospital and the Blackrock Clinic in Dublin carry out nearly 2,500 laser eye operations between them every year.

    Michael O’Keefe, director of the Mater’s laser unit, said the army’s rule had no medical grounding. “There’s no risk to the eye from indirect trauma or physical contact,” he said. “We can carry out a procedure, Lasek, that doesn’t involve cutting a flap so there is no danger of it coming loose. It’s the procedure we would do for people who take part in physical sports or occupations.

    “A rule like this hasn’t been run past people like me who have a reputation in the business. I’ve been doing laser for 15 years. There isn’t a single medical reason why people who have been operated on can’t be a member of the defence forces.”

    The flap operation, known as Lasik, is much quicker to perform than Lasek and is less painful but in both cases the patient is expected to recover fully within six months.

    O’Keefe contrasted the stance of the defence forces with that taken by the gardai who consulted with ophthalmologists in 1998 prior to encouraging officers to go for the operation. Garda Medical Aid is the only medical insurance available to cover the procedure, offering up to €1,016 towards the cost of each eye.

    Increasingly gardai applicants who don’t meet eyesight requirements are told to come back once they have had the operation. The defence forces are also at odds with the Irish Aviation Authority. It permits pilots who have had the operation to fly six months after the procedure, as long as there are no side effects.

    Commandant Brian Cleary, a spokesman for the defence forces, said they were following best international practice but the rule was under review. “It is the issue of side effects that remains one of the major concerns,” he said.

    This claim was rejected by Bill Power, a surgeon at Blackrock Clinic. “In terms of long-term side effects this is not happening with approximately 20m people,” he said. “The US navy’s air corps would not have approved it for their pilots if they had any concerns.”