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Retinopathy In Premature Babies: Vision Problems Can Last a Lifetime If Not Caught Early

Babies born prematurely are at high risk for certain health problems. One of these problems is Retinopathy of prematurity or ROP for short. In the US alone, it is estimated that 15,000 babies are affected by ROP.

A baby is considered premature when he or she is born before the 37th week of gestation. There are many reasons for preterm delivery, some of them medically valid, some not. When I delivered my twin boys on the 35th week of pregnancy, I was always on the lookout for signs of developmental problems. Though they had other health issues, was I ever relieved that their vision was normal.

How Does ROP Happen?

ROP happens when a baby is delivered before the blood vessels supplying the eyes are fully developed. If delivery occurs before the developing blood vessels reach the edge of the retina, the development will proceed abnormally, resulting in fragile blood vessels that can break and bleed and scar the retina. In severe cases of ROP, retinal detachment occurs.

Who is at Risk for ROP?

Babies born before the 31st week of pregnancy and weighing 2.75 lbs or less are at high risk for ROP. ROP is one of the most common forms of visual impairment in children. It is usually bilateral, i.e. both eyes are affected. ROP can range from mild to severe and the latter can manifest in visual impairment and even blindness. However, all preemies should be checked for ROP.

How Can I Find Out If My Baby Has ROP?

By performing an eye exam and looking at the appearance of the blood vessels, doctors may be able to determine whether a baby will develop severe ROP or not. When detected and treated early, visual impairment may be prevented. However, when treatment is postponed, more damage to the vision may occur. This is according to the results from the Early Treatment for Retinopathy of Prematurity (ETROP), a study supported by the National Institutes of Health. The ETROP study, which was initially short-term, confirmed their results with a study that followed up children up to 6 years.

Is ROP Treatable?

Yes, but he treatment for ROP would depend on the severity of the symptoms and if diagnosed early on. Mild forms of ROP usually do not require any treatment. The trick, however, is to detect ROP right after birth and determine the risk for severe manifestation.

The most common treatment involves using a laser to burn away the periphery of the retina where the blood vessels are abnormal. Cryotherapy can also be effective, which is the same principle except freezing the abnormal areas away rather than burning them. Unfortunately, both methods destroy the infected areas of the child’s peripheral sight eliminating some side vision. These techniques slow or even reverse the process of ROP which preserves the most important part of vision – the clear, forward line of sight required for things like driving your car or reading a book.

Vision is probably the most important of the 5 senses. By preventing ROP, doctors can improve the lives of thousands of preemies born each year.

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