I saw a news story about a boy who was born really prematurely. At first, the doctors were unsure if he would live, but he pulled through and after a couple of months at the hospital, he was able to go home. In the beginning he was pretty sick, and he got tired really easily, but by the time he was in high school, he put on weight and even played on the varsity football team. Though his story shows that extremely preterm children can lead healthy lives despite their tumultuous beginnings, not every preterm child outgrows the medical issues often associated with early birth.

A recent study conducted in Sweden actually found that children born prematurely have a much higher chance of experiencing retinal detachment later in life. In fact, they’re more than 19 times as likely to have retinal detachment compared to their peers who were born at term.

Retinopathy of prematurity (ROP) is a condition that causes abnormal blood vessels to grow in the retina and may cause it to detach. This is major cause of childhood blindness around the world. Unless RPO is treated surgically, it will lead to vision loss and even total blindness. The risk of ROP increases depending on how prematurely a child is born. Extremely preterm children born at 28 weeks or less are more than 19 times as likely to experience retinal detachment compared to their at term birth peers. In recent years however, this number has decreased slightly due to advances in modern medicine. Children born between 28 and 31 weeks are 3-4 times more likely to experience retinal detachment, and moderately preterm infants are just as likely as at term infant to experience detachment.

"We may just be seeing the tip of the iceberg of late ophthalmic complications after preterm birth," says Dr. Anna-Karin Edstedt Bonamy, pediatrician at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm and the study's lead researcher. "Not only does the risk of retinal detachment increase with age, but there has also been an increase in survival among people born prematurely since the 1970s. This provides opportunities for future research to address if the increased risk persists among those born prematurely as they age."

The American Academy of Pediatrics, along with the American Academy of Ophthalmology, American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus and the American Association of Certified Orthoptists recommend screening for ROP in infants born at less than 30 weeks of gestation or those with a birth weight of less than 1500 grams. This will hopefully allow physicians to help monitor the infants and potentially fix any damage before it causes permanent loss of vision.

Source: American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) (2013, November 7). Children born prematurely face up to 19 times greater risk of retinal detachment. ScienceDaily.

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