As an outgoing nine-year-old with a love of computer games and reading, Zac Shaw couldn’t understand why he was slowly edging closer to the screen and pages – until, after four years of tests and hospital trips, he was diagnosed with an incurable sight-stealing condition called Stargardt disease.

Now 23, Zac has been robbed of 90 per cent of his vision, but that hasn’t stopped him in his tracks. He is a gold medal-winning Para-athlete, with hopes of a position in the GB team heading to Tokyo 2020 – recently being named as ‘Paralympic Podium Potential’ by British Athletics.

In support of an ongoing partnership between Vision Express and the Macular Society, Zac is sharing his story to encourage others to take advantage of a free eye test offer when booked online at Vision Express, which launched for Macular Week 2019 and will run throughout the summer.

New research shows that nearly 1.5 million people in the UK are affected by macular conditions and that the disease is more prevalent than dementia – and is now an urgent public health issue because it is forecasted to reach epidemic proportions unless at least an extra £6 million a year is invested in research.

Zac’s condition was first suspected after his mum, Evette, booked him in for an eye test at the Vision Express Grimsby store near their home. The team initially prescribed glasses to the youngster, but when they monitored his sight and found it had not improved, the optometrist made a referral to Sheffield Eye Hospital. What followed was four years of tests and investigation, until at the age of 13, Zac was finally delivered the life-changing news that he had a hereditary, progressive condition called Stargardt disease.

It causes degeneration of the macula – a small area in the centre of the retina, that is responsible for sharp, straight-ahead vision. It can cause central eyesight to be blurry and unclear, without affecting peripheral vision.

Due to the challenges of being a youngster with Stargardt disease, it wasn’t until the age of 18 that Zac began practising sport, initially training on a casual basis around twice a week. After winning medals throughout his first year of competing, he set his sights high, and in 2015 he took part in his first international competition in Berlin where he was classified as a T13 (visually impaired) athlete.

Zac has since represented Great Britain across the globe – travelling to the Commonwealth Games in Australia and the European Championships in Berlin last year, where he helped his team scoop gold in the relay. He is now hopeful for medals in the 100m and relay races at the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics.

He explains: “I have no vision in the centre of my eyes, so things disappear in the middle. My left eye is slightly worse than my right – it’s like I’m looking through a fog.

“Having Stargardt disease affects your confidence, not just in sport, but in day to day life too. It can be hard doing something simple like getting on a train or a bus or going to the supermarket. I want to inspire those living with macular disease, like me, to go out there and achieve their dreams. I’m talking from personal experience – my confidence grew by doing athletics as I felt it levelled the playing field.”

He added: “It’s so important to raise awareness of macular conditions because the ultimate aim has to be to stop this cruel disease.”

Dan McGhee, director of professional services at Vision Express, added: “Zac’s story is inspirational because he hasn’t allowed his sight loss, which can be a devastating diagnosis, to prevent him from fulfilling his dreams.

“Like macular degeneration, Stargardt disease affects the central vision and is a progressive condition with no known cure. It can lead to considerable vision loss and while this can take years, some people, like Zac, lose sight rapidly.  Although it is rare, it is the most common form of macular disease that affects children and young people. It can be detected through an eye test, so our advice to parents is to always go to an optician with any concerns or symptoms, so they can be investigated by an expert.”

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