Suðurnes Clinic Introduces AI-Powered Eye Screening

eye scanning in a suðurnes health clinic

The Suðurnes Hospital and Health Center has introduced machine-learning based screening for eye diseases caused by diabetes. It is the first of all Icelandic health clinics to offer such screenings.

Powered by an Icelandic startup

The screening uses a special camera powered by machine learning, developed by Icelandic tech startup Risk Medical Solutions (RMS). Established in 2009 by Professor Einar Stefánsson, Dr. Arna Guðmundsdóttir, and Professor Thor Aspelund, their flagship product is RetinaRisk, a suite of AI-trained cameras, an app, and custom APIs that can accurately predict the risk of sight-threatening eye diseases in patients.

According to RMS, diabetic eye disease is a leading cause of blindness worldwide. When detected early, however, it can be prevented in 90% of cases.

Inaugural screening well-attended

The inaugural AI-assisted eye scan was conducted on Friday, April 26. The screening was also attended by Minister of Health Willum Þór Þórsson, representatives from RMS, and delegates from the local Lions Club of Njarðvík, which provided a grant to assist in purchasing the system.

Minister of Health Willum Þór Þórsson stated:

“This innovation enables the important monitoring of eye health for people with diabetes in a simple and effective manner. Regular screening allows for timely intervention when necessary. Innovation in healthcare services involving artificial intelligence is extremely exciting, and we undoubtedly expect to see significant progress in this area in the near future.”

Can save time, resources

Damage to the retina is a common complication from diabetes, and it is essential to monitor the progression of retinal conditions to prevent vision impairment or blindness caused by the disease.

Such AI-assisted cameras can facilitate this monitoring, and by using it for screening, RMS state that unnecessary visits to eye specialists are also avoided, saving both time and resources.

Like reading about Iceland? How about winning a free trip to Iceland? Find out more here!

Suspicion of Measles Spread in Northeast Iceland

Gas station in Vopnafjörður, Northeast Iceland

Health authorities suspect a second measles case in Northeast Iceland connected to the one that was diagnosed last weekend, RÚV reports. The confirmed case is in an unvaccinated adult who is not seriously ill. Staff at a workplace in Þórshöfn and those who attended a large event in Vopnafjörður last weekend have been asked to stay away from others when possible and monitor themselves for measles symptoms over the next three weeks.

Unvaccinated children at risk

Measles are a highly contagious illness. It normally begins with cold-like symptoms followed by outbreaks of red flecks across the skin several days later. Infection is very unlikely among those who are fully vaccinated against measles. According to Chief Epidemiologist Guðrún Aspelund, health authorities’ main concern is that the illness will continue to spread among unvaccinated people in Northeast Iceland, particularly children.

The health clinic in the area has begun administering vaccinations in Þórshöfn and Vopnafjörður to minimise the likelihood of a larger outbreak. Vaccinations are being offered to children who have not yet received their routine measles vaccine but are close to the standard age when it is given.

Considering earlier vaccination

In Iceland, children currently receive their first dose of vaccine against measles at 18 months and a second dose at 12 years, but authorities are currently discussing whether the second dose should be administered earlier due to rising incidences of measles in Europe and Iceland. Guðrún says the rate of vaccination against measles is generally good in Northeast Iceland.

First case in five years

Last February, Iceland diagnosed its first case of measles in five years in an adult traveller who was visiting the country. According to a recent review by the Directorate of Health, participation in measles vaccination has dropped from around 93-95% down to around 90% in recent years, which is too low to maintain herd immunity.

Rise in COVID-19 Cases in Iceland

Confirmed COVID-19 infections have been increasing in Iceland over the past four weeks, Chief Epidemiologist Guðrún Aspelund told RÚV. “We’re talking about going from around 10 cases per week to around 30,” she stated. Guðrún says seniors and those with underlying health issues will be offered COVID-19 booster shots this fall.

The numbers Guðrún cites are numbers of COVID-19 cases confirmed via PCR tests in hospitals and they do not give a complete picture of the spread of COVID-19 in the general population. “There are lots of people who don’t have to seek out healthcare services, who are home, test at home, or are just sick at home. Hospitals test those who go in and those inpatients who have symptoms. That’s where we’re getting these notifications from,” Guðrún explained.

At-risk groups offered boosters this fall

While COVID-19 vaccinations are available at health clinics in Iceland, there has been no ongoing vaccination campaign. Those in at-risk groups will be offered booster shots this fall. “There will be clearer guidelines on that in September, it would be at the same time as the flu shot. There we’re targeting, as was stated in the guidelines that were released last spring, the 60+ demographic, and then at-risk groups and also healthcare staff who are more exposed.”

Insecticide – With a Buzz

nicotine pouches in iceland

According to data from the Directorate of Health, 34.2% of Icelanders between the ages of 18 and 69 smoked cigarettes on a daily basis in 1989. In 2022, 23 years later, that percentage had shrunk to an impressive 6.3%. This decline is not, however, so straightforward as it may appear, for the introduction of new […]

This content is only visible under subscription. Subscribe here or log in.

Continue reading

In Focus: Opioid Crisis

opioid crisis iceland

In April of this year, National Broadcaster RÚV reported that social media had “been abuzz with rumours” concerning the inordinate number of drug-related deaths in 2023 in Iceland. Some of those rumours claimed that 15 people had died from addiction-related problems over the preceding two weeks; others that there had been 35 addiction-related deaths since […]

This content is only visible under subscription. Subscribe here or log in.

Continue reading

Common for Children to be Admitted to Hospital with Nicotine Poisoning

There are several cases a week of children being admitted to the hospital with nicotine poisoning after ingesting nicotine pouches, RÚV reports. Ragnar Grímur Bjarnason, chief physician at the Children’s Hospital, says most poisonings occur at home and many parents don’t realise that nicotine is a strong toxic chemical that can have much more serious consequences for children than adults.

Snus, a moist tobacco powder, is illegal in Iceland, but nicotine pouches are very similar. These are small, hand-or premade sachets filled with loose tobacco powder and then held between the upper lip and the gum for extended nicotine release. Although cigarette smoking has declined in Iceland, nicotine pouches have seen an increased popularity in recent years, particularly among young people. In 2021, nearly a third of Icelanders aged 18-34 were using nicotine pouches on a daily or nearly daily basis.

See Also: Health Minister Presents Bill to Regulate Nicotine Pouch Sales

Nicotine poisonings among children are not a new phenomenon, says Ragnar Grímur. “Naturally, when everyone was vaping, the oils were being left out all over the place. They smelled good and were pretty colours. So at that time, we were getting a lot of those poisonings. They’re also flavoured and taste much better than cigarettes in an ashtray, which was the main cause of [nicotine] poisoning a few decades ago.”

Nicotine poisoning is very serious for children and can necessitate intensive care or even be life-threatening.

“Most people who have tried nicotine know what the most common reactions are,” says Ragnar Grímur. “There’s nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and discomfort. But in children, it can also have very serious effects on the central nervous system.”

Widespread Iodine Deficiency as Diets Change with Times

Fish Shop Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir

Icelanders have stopped consuming the large quantities of fish and milk that they used to, leading to widespread iodine deficiencies. RÚV reports that the situation has nutritionists concerned, as iodine deficiencies in pregnant people can lead to developmental delays in children.

Both fish and dairy are integral sources of iodine for people in industrialized countries. Nutritionists stress the importance of iodine intake during pregnancy, as children who do not receive enough iodine during this time tend to score low on developmental scales. In some countries, iodine-fortified salt is used in the production of baked goods as a way of introducing iodine into a wider diet when fish and milk consumption is low. This is an option that is currently under consideration in Iceland, but could create its own problems. If iodine was introduced into baked goods and breads, for instance, young children would be at risk of ingesting too much.

A brief history of the modern Icelandic diet

The typical Icelandic diet was first examined in 1939, when Professor Júlíus Sigurjónsson concluded that where people lived naturally had a significant effect on what they consumed. At the time, Júlíus found that Icelanders who lived close to the sea tended to eat a great deal of fish, while those who lived inland tended to drink large quantities of milk.

No further studies on the Icelandic diet were conducted until just over half a century later, in 1990. By that point, Icelanders’ lifestyle had undergone incredible change and their diets attested to that. Nearly all of the energy Icelanders consumed in the 90s came from protein and fat, with the average Icelander consuming roughly half a kilo [2.2 lbs] of dairy and four slices of bread a day. Water was only the fourth most-consumed beverage in the country, after coffee (an average of four cups a day), milk, and sugary soft drinks. Cholesterol was high and coronary artery disease was common. But at the same time, Icelanders ate the most fish of any nation in Europe, proportionally speaking.

2002 – 2010

A study in 2002 revealed more dramatic dietary shifts. By that point, fish, milk, and potatoes had been replaced by vegetables, cereal, and pasta in the diet of most Icelanders. The nation had also developed a taste for pork and chicken, neither of which had been consumed in great quantity in the past. Young boys no longer drank half a litre soda every day, but a full litre.

By 2010, however, it seemed Icelandic dietary habits were moving in the right direction. People were eating more fruit, vegetables, unprocessed bread and fish oil. Protein drinks became a major source of protein. Sugary soda consumption went down, although consumption of sugar-free soda remained high. Milk consumption went down.

2019 – 2021

The most recent survey, conducted over the years 2019 – 2021, found that fruit consumption is down among Icelanders, while consumption of saturated fat is on the rise. The Directorate of Health advises that people should only get a maximum of 10% of their energy from saturated fat, but according to this study, only 2% of Icelanders abide by that advice. Wholegrain bread has only recently become widely available in the country. Nutritionists say that Icelanders now have the opportunity to increase their consumption of not only whole grains, but also beans, nuts, and seeds. Low fibre intake is a broad cause for concern.

“If we look at what is causing most premature deaths around the world, a lack of fibre is one of the things that makes the biggest difference,” remarked Jóhanna Eyrún Torfadóttir, a nutritionist with the Directorate of Health. “Lack of fibre is causing premature death.” If the pattern of high consumption of saturated fat, low consumption of fibre continues, says Jóhanna Eyrún, there will be an increased risk for cancer, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes: “[O]ur biggest, long-term illnesses that are causing the most deaths.”

Icelandic diets are more diverse than ever

Today, Icelandic diets are far more diverse than they were in the past. More Icelanders are vegans and vegetarians, and more people are on low-carb and other special diets. This has made it difficult for the Directorate of Health to issue broad nutritional advisories like it once did.

In general, however, the Directorate has simple advice: Each a varied diet of moderate portions. People are advised to eat lots of vegetables and fruits, more whole than processed grains, fish two to three times a week, and meat in moderation. Low-fat dairy products and soft fats are preferable over saturated fats. Salt and sugar should be consumed in moderation and vitamin D is important.

STIs On the Rise in Iceland

Cases of syphilis and gonorrhoea continued to increase in Iceland in the first half of 2020, despite gathering bans and social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A bulletin on infectious diseases from the Directorate of Health says the two sexually transmitted infections “continue to be of particular concern,” and that men are the “driving force” behind their spread.

In the first six months of 2020, 43 individuals were diagnosed with syphilis, a significant increase compared to previous years. The vast majority, or 91%, were men, and almost half were Icelandic citizens.

Gonorrhoea is also on the rise, with 68 individuals diagnosed between January and June of this year, an increase from previous years. Most, or 69%, were men, and 81% were Icelandic citizens.

Chlamydia remains the most widespread sexually transmitted infection in Iceland. In the first six months of 2020, 834 individuals were diagnosed with the infection, a number similar to previous years. Women represented slightly more than half of cases, or 56%. Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist noted earlier this year that while increased social distancing and hygiene had brought down the number of influenza and stomach flu cases in the country, the same was not true for STIs.

Directorate of Health Proposes 20% Sugar Tax

soft drinks

The Directorate’s new action plan calls for imposing a 20% sugar tax on soft drinks and sweets, RÚV reports. Kjartann Hreinn Njálsson, assistant to the Director of Health, says that implementing this tax is important for the country’s long term goals in public health.

Ireland, France, Norway, and Mexico, are just a few of the countries which have taxed soft drinks and other sugary products mostly in an effort to reduce their consumption and improve public health. Iceland also previously implemented a sugar tax of 5% that was eventually repealed.

Higher tax more likely to succeed

“When this was last tried [in Iceland], sweetened soft drinks rose in price by only around ISK 5 per litre, while chocolate lowered in price because the existing taxes that applied before were higher than those applied due to sugar,” states Kjartann. “Now it is suggested that the increase be 20% […] so that consumers feel the increase.” Kjartan says there is evidence that informing consumers and encouraging healthier choices are not enough to decrease sugar consumption. Lowering the price of healthy food products needs to follow as well.

“Given how high the level of sugar consumption is here in the country and what a serious public health issue it is to consume too much sugar, for society as a whole, we believe the sugar tax is very important,” stated Kjartan.

Taxing TVs and running shoes

Several parties have put forth arguments against the sugar tax, questioning its efficacy and pointing to potential negative side effects. Icelandic Federation of Trade Director Ólafur Stephensen has suggested that the tax works against recent efforts which have streamlined food taxation, and would increase overhead costs for businesses. In addition, he points out that research on sugar taxes around the world has shown contradictory results and there are many indications such taxes are ineffective.

The sugar tax is also paternalistic, Ólafur adds. “It’s so incredibly difficult when governments are starting to decide what is healthy and what is unhealthy for us and change the price of things in order to control consumption. If taxes are to be applied to this end then there should be high taxes on TVs and low taxes on running shoes.”