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Extremely premature babies risk poor vision —Expert

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A child eye expert, Professor Marilyn T Miller has said that extremely premature babies were more likely to have health problems, including eye conditions.

Miller, an ophthalmologist at the Eye and Ear Infirmary, University of Illinois, Chicago, said this at the first Marilyn Miller lecture in Eleta Eye Institute, Ibadan entitled “Childhood Blindness and Visual Impairment: A Changing Picture Globally.”

According to the ophthalmologist, extremely premature babies stand a higher risk of developing retinopathy of prematurity (ROP), a condition in which the blood vessels in the eye grow abnormally, and which can cause sometimes vision problems that have lasting effects.

Miller, who stated that such premature babies are born less than 31 weeks, declared that while many babies with ROP will go on to have excellent or near excellent vision, a severe case of ROP can cause the retina to detach or partially detach, which will result in profound and probably permanent vision loss.

According to the ophthalmologist, more than two thirds of childhood blindness in the world occurs in developing countries, though about 40 per cent of these cases are preventable and 15 per cent treatable.

Miller, while lamenting that many blind children die before age two, declared that there were great regional variation on causes of childhood blindness all over the world and as such the need for different strategies to curtail blindness from one country to another.

“Children have long life spans so visual impairment/blindness has more serious implications than to elderly,” she declared.

Given that many conditions that cause child mortality also cause blindness in children, she declared under-five mortality rates as good estimates of prevalence of childhood blindness in any country.

The expert mentioned Vitamin A Deficiency, measles, harmful traditional eye medicines, rubella, and childhood illnesses as malaria and meningitis, as well as injury as preventable cause of blindness in children.

While avoidable causes of blindness in children include cataract, glaucoma, ROP, and refractive errors, she stressed the need for increased public health education on eye, training of more professionals, public health interventions like immunisation, provision of more low vision/blind services as well as tertiary care units to reduce childhood blindness.

In addition, Miller stated that there was also the need for a screening programme that reflects local experience and birth weight at risk to prevent poor vision in babies arising from prematurity.

“But with improved survival of low birth weight infants, there will be significant increase in babies with visual impairment from retinopathy of prematurity (ROP) and other eye complications,” she declared.

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