Dr Rasha Altaie, an Ophthalmologist, is from Auckland and a founding member of the Australia and New Zealand Child Myopia Working Group. Myopia (short-sightedness or near-sightedness) is a common eye condition that causes blurred distance vision and usually starts during childhood, typically progressing until the child stops growing. It is often regarded as a benign disorder because vision can be corrected with glasses, contact lenses, and refractive surgery in adulthood; however, myopia has recently emerged as a major public health concern for several reasons.
Why is myopia now a major public health issue? Firstly, its prevalence has been rising around the globe. It is estimated that by 2050, half of the world’s population will be myopic. Secondly, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recognises that myopia, if not fully corrected, is a significant cause of visual impairment. Finally, children with high myopia are at a substantially increased risk of potentially blinding comorbidities (several conditions at once) later in life, including retinal detachment, glaucoma, cataracts, and myopic maculopathy. The chance of developing these conditions rises with the increase in myopia, and this is not prevented by optical correction. There are different causes of myopia, including genetic and environmental factors. If both parents are short-sighted, the risk of the child being myopic is six times greater than the general population; if one parent is short-sighted, the risk is around three times greater.
Modern lifestyles may also influence the development of myopia, including low levels of outdoor activity, low levels of light exposure, and prolonged near tasks such as reading. Only 10 per cent of parents in New Zealand are aware of these facts, and almost half the parents of children aged 17 years and under, admit they do not know what causes myopia. Recent epidemiological surveys have shown that increased amounts of time outdoors can help protect against the development of myopia, minimising the risk of myopia associated with near work or with having myopic parents. The protective eﬀect seems to be related to total time outdoors, rather than with speciﬁc engagement in sport.
The first symptom of myopia for parents to be aware of is if their child has difficulty reading road signs and seeing distant objects clearly, although she or he would be able to see well for close-up tasks such as reading and computer use. Other signs and symptoms of myopia include squinting, eye strain, and headaches. Feeling fatigued when playing sports can also be a symptom of uncorrected short-sightedness.
Public awareness of myopia is crucial; knowing your children’s potential risk of myopia and taking action before it’s too late can benefit their academic and physical performance, personal growth, and overall health. Once myopia is diagnosed, different methods can help to slow its progression and subsequently reduce the incidence of high myopia, which is associated with ocular comorbidities that might cause permanent loss of vision. The statistics are very alarming in New Zealand, 28 per cent of children (17 years and under) have never been to an optometrist for an eye examination. And 40 per cent of children have not been to an optometrist to have an eye examination before their ninth birthday.
Finally, we need to work all together to win the fight against myopia. By taking action now, we have the opportunity to influence the onset and progression of myopia with simple measures – encourage children to spend more time outdoors, have their eyes examined by an optometrist regularly, and reduce the time spent on close-up tasks.
Visit childmyopia.com for more information
For further reading and detailed information:
Myopia Signs to Look Out For