‘Incidence of blindness in preterm babies high in smaller cities’

Retinopathy of Prematurity (RoP), which leads to permanent damage of retina, is increasingly becoming a major cause of blindness among preterm babies with more cases getting reported from tier-2 and tier-3 cities, said Subhadra Jalali, Director, Newborn Eye Health Alliance (NEHA), L.V. Prasad Eye Institute (LVPEI).

In an interaction with the media on the sidelines of the fourth annual ‘Retina Summit’ organised by Sankara Nethralaya here on Friday, Dr. Jalali said that RoP, which is caused by high exposure to oxygen in preterm babies being incubated, was ‘man-made’ and potentially avoidable with intervention.

Citing data from a study she co-authored and published in the June issue of the Indian Journal of Ophthalmology, she said that there had been a 12-fold increase in the number of children requiring treatment for RoP in the past 18 years.

The study analysed the data of 6.39 lakh children examined in the outpatient department of LVPEI from 2000 to 2017.

Stating that regular screening of children kept in incubators by ophthalmologists and implementation of safety precautions including regulated supply of oxygen at newborn intensive care units (NICUs) can prevent RoP, Dr. Jalali highlighted that screenings by LVPEI have resulted in considerable reduction of RoPs in Hyderabad.

“Now, we are seeing more cases from places such as Kakinada and Visakhapatam, where more hospitals are providing NICU services. It is good that more preterm babies are surviving today because of better health infrastructure, but focus is needed on preventing RoP,” she said.

“For instance, in many developed countries, regular visits of ophthalmologists is a mandatory requirement for running NICUs. Here, that is not the case,” she said.

‘Guidelines unheeded’

She said that the guidelines on early identification of illnesses among children, developed and published in 2016 under the Rashtriya Bal Swasthya Karyakram (RBSK) of the Union government, has not been implemented yet. This includes screening for four eye-related illnesses among newborns, she added.

Dr Jalali said that the first step towards implementation of these guidelines should be to include them in the curriculum for training doctors and nursing staff. “There are very simple tests that can be done without the need for any special infrastructure, through which almost 70 % of eye-related problems can be detected,” she said.

Highlighting that blindness among children was already becoming a major health concern for the country, determined action as done with the eradication of polio was needed to tackle the issue.

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