After life itself, it is said that God’s great gift is vision. 80 percent of what we learn is through vision. Babies are not born with perfect vision. They develop vision over time. A child who never developed good vision does not know what normal vision is — he or she assumes that however they see is normal. There is nothing like the overwhelming emotion I have each time I see the look on a child’s face when he or she can finally see the world as it should appear. When I first became a doctor of optometry, I did not anticipate that pediatric eye care would become a defining part of my practice, but after treating a few children, I realized how a comprehensive eye examination, vision therapy, or even a contact lens fitting could positively change the lives of my young patients.
The prevalence of eye and vision problems in children is a significant public health concern. An estimated one in five preschool children have vision problems. Early diagnosis and treatment are essential to optimize children’s eye health and vision and to prevent potential long-term developmental, academic, and social challenges and, in some cases, future vision loss.
An example of one of the thousands of cases that I have treated was the child who was having difficulty learning to read. Reading at only the third percentile of her peers, this third grader was labeled as learning disabled. Her mother, a school psychologist, knew there had to be something more to her daughter’s struggle and a friend suggested that she bring her daughter to me for a comprehensive eye examination. That’s when we discovered significant issues with both her vision and how her eyes work together.
Six weeks after I fitted her with contact lenses and provided vision therapy, she advanced to read at the 85th percentile. A visit to the doctor of optometry and a few visual tools was all she needed to excel. Without receiving that care, the cost of being labeled with a learning disability could have had a long-lasting impact on her academic potential, social interactions, future professional success and her self-esteem.
Vision has an enormous impact on social, motor, cognitive and academic achievement. Yet what may not be as clear to most is that routine screenings, like those offered at a school or a pediatricians’ officer, are not enough. Nearly 90 percent of parents believe that these screenings are an effective way to detect vision problems. The screenings children receive at school may catch visual acuity problems, but they can also give parents a false sense of security as there are a range of other serious issues that may be missed. In their initial stages, many vision conditions lack obvious signs or symptoms and can go completely unnoticed, causing delays in the detection and treatment of a potentially serious or life-limiting condition. This is particularly sobering considering screenings miss up to 75 percent of other conditions.
Compounding the problem is the lack of appropriate care. Of the children found to have eye problems by screening, 61 percent of them do not receive suitable follow-up.
Just as a child’s body and mind develop, their eyes and vision do as well. Annual children’s comprehensive eye examinations are the only way to protect and set a positive course for their immediate and future eye health and vision care. A child’s visual demands change each year, and it is critically important to ensure that a child’s visual ability meets or exceeds those demands.
Pediatric eye care is my passion, and it’s my hope that more families will embrace the need for an annual visit to the doctor of optometry as part of their child’s regular health routine. As a doctor of optometry, we change the life of every child that we treat. Together, we can set a clear and bright path for our children’s future.
Andrea P. Thau is past president, American Optometric Association.
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