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July 24, 2020
During any normal year, parents’ schedules fill with appointments to the healthcare professionals who take care of our children: dentists, pediatricians and orthodontists. Those of us whose kiddos wear glasses or contacts also visit our eye doctors often.
But this is no normal year. And parents are hesitating to visit doctors because they fear the COVID-19 virus, even while they worry about issues with their children’s health. When it comes to eye health, if a child has been referred to an eye doctor by their pediatrician for any vision problems, it’s best to schedule that visit, with the understanding that medical practices have implemented all CDC protocols, including mask-wearing, sanitizing and social distancing.
“If you fail a vision screen early, you want to get that addressed, the earlier the better,” says Dr. Samantha Roland, a pediatric ophthalmologist in the Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital Department of Surgery. “The younger a child is, the more important it is.”
While Dr. Roland saw a dip in patient numbers during April and May, more patients have started coming back in now. One issue she has seen more of lately is children being brought in for excessive blinking. Dr Roland explains that when children focus intently on things close by, whether it’s a Zoom call or a book, their blink rate reduces drastically. While the blinking norm is an average of 8-21 times per minute, children who are super-focused on something close by can reduce this to as little as once a minute. This can cause their eyes dry out, so when they get off the device or book, they blink excessively to compensate. While this blinking could just be a benign tic that the child could outgrow, it could also indicate problems, such as Dry Eye Syndrome or a need for glasses.
After a certain age, adults find is difficult to focus for extended periods of time on something close up, but children “accommodate,” or are able to do so for long stretches without seeming to strain. However, this accommodation can contribute to myopia, or near-sightedness. According to the International Myopia Institute, recent estimates show that 30 percent of the world is myopic, or near-sighted, a number that is expected to climb to 50 percent by 2050. In the United States, the prevalence of myopia is up to 42 percent, having almost doubled in three decades. Dr. Roland says myopia is also being detected at earlier ages. “It’s not necessarily COVID-related, but we’ll probably see a little bit of a faster rate because of it.”
The best way to catch and prevent eye problems is by seeing a doctor. Pediatricians spot many issues by using vision screeners to detect problems in infants as early as 18 months. Babies are born with poor vision, but rapid development occurs within the first year, and a child’s vision is completely developed by the time they are 9. If a pediatrician points out a vision problem with your child, it is important to see an eye specialist as quickly as possible to correct the problem.
“If you’re screened at 18 or even 24 months, that’s early enough to correct vision and develop good vision,” says Dr. Roland.