In the last half of the 20th century, the United States made impressive strides in ensuring the health of our children. Breakthrough medical research resulted in vaccines for many childhood diseases. Public health programs educated parents about the importance of these vaccines and state and city laws went into effect requiring immunizations for children to enter school. The good news is that our kids now are much healthier, and diseases such as polio and diphtheria, which once plagued children, have essentially been eradicated.
However, we still have strides to make in improving one of our children’s most basic needs — eye health.
Children approaching school age should begin having an annual eye exam by a licensed eye care professional just as they have regular physical and dental check-ups. Parents can’t rely on the vision screenings given in schools or even in pediatricians’ offices to really know what eye problems their children may have. After all, kids don’t know if their vision is off, because it’s all they’ve ever seen.
While childhood diseases of the body — measles, mumps, etc. — are well known, impairments affecting the eyes are less so. Case in point is amblyopia. Are you aware of it? Or how it could affect your child?
Amblyopia is a vision impairment that results from abnormal visual development in infancy or early childhood and can result in partial or complete loss of sight in the affected eye. What medical research has shown is that the brain favors one eye while not stimulating, or even ignoring, the other — which is why the condition is often incorrectly referred to as lazy eye. Amblyopia is the leading cause of monocular blindness in children.
The sad statistic is that amblyopia affects up to 5 percent of the population. If not detected and treated within a specific period of childhood, usually by age 7, it can lead to permanent vision loss. Common treatments are surgical correction of the eye muscle imbalance, eyeglasses or contact lenses, LASIK surgery and the throw-back approach of an eye patch over the dominant eye to force the weaker one to improve.
A research study for the Vision Council of America featured on the Vision Impact Institute website delved into the question of the better method for screening children in the years when they are most vulnerable to amblyopia — right before starting their first year of school.
It compared two methods:
— Comprehensive eye exams conducted by optometrists or ophthalmologists and used to diagnose vision problems
— Vision screenings performed by nurses, pediatricians or non-medical volunteers and used to identify children at-risk for vision issues.
The study found that the comprehensive eye exams would result in 51 percent more children receiving successful treatment for amblyopia by age 10, ultimately resulting in successfully treating 33,000 more children.
Yes, it’s more costly to provide universal access to eye exams for all American school children. Vision screenings are less expensive but not as effective, according to the Vision Council of America study.
Kentucky set the standard for child vision care when it became the first state to enact a law requiring all entering public school or preschool to have a comprehensive eye exam by an optometrist or ophthalmologist. Two additional states, Missouri and Illinois also adopted these high standards. And this month, the Every Student Succeeds Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama. This provides block grants to states, which will help non-profit vision organizations work directly with school districts to benefit students in need.
Regardless of where we live, it remains the responsibility of parents to take care of their children’s eyes. The comprehensive eye exam by a licensed eye care professional remains the best option for doing all that we can to ensure the vision health of our children. Parents should make sure their kids see the eye doctor annually, just as they do for the pediatrician and dentist.