01/10/2014 09:09 BST | Updated 20/05/2015 10:12 BST

Don't Put Children's Eye Sight At Risk


Research from The College of Optometrists shows that a quarter of parents have never taken their child for an eye test.

Yet if Wendy Oxendale had not taken her five-year-old daughter Georgina for an annual eye examination last year, then she might not be alive today.

"Last year, just before Georgina turned four, the optician was doing a routine eye check when she said, 'We've found something at the back of Georgina's eye and we need her to go to hospital.' There in hospital, it was revealed that Georgina had eye cancer," says Wendy.

Georgina could not have been more brave, she adds:

"She lost all her hair as a result of the chemo, but made light of it by giving clumps of it to her dad – who is losing his hair – saying, 'You have it, Daddy.'"

The chemo finished in March, but Georgina is still not out of the woods. "She still requires eye treatment every eight weeks and that will go on for several years. After the last one, she went blind in that eye for several hours," says Wendy.

"We've had another blow recently too as we recently discovered the tumour is still active. As a result, we are all coming to terms with the fact that she may lose that eye. But Georgina still remains courageous, having recently asked if she will be allowed a pirate's patch."

Despite the trauma the Oxendale family have gone through, Wendy remains positive too. "If we hadn't seen the optician who picked up the problem, the cancer would almost certainly have spread and could have done so quickly. So now I want to help raise awareness of the importance of regular eye tests for children."

With the fifth National Eye Health Week upon us, opticians nationwide are keen to spread the same message. "There are so many reasons that an annual eye check for children is important," says Victoria O'Connor, a Boots UK optometrist.

"It's not just about getting children into good habits, although that matters too. It's also because children's eyes are still growing, with their visual capability continuing to develop until they are eight-years-old. As a result, regular check-ups can monitor how that visual capability is developing as children approach that age – and allow us intervene where necessary."

Contrary to popular opinion, children often don't articulate vision problems, she explains. "If a child is born with less than average vision, that's all they've ever known.


Even when children develop an eye problem after birth, they tend to adapt behaviourally rather than telling anyone – for example, by sitting closer to the telly, holding their book closer or squinting to see the blackboard. Some children may also turn to naughty behaviour or fall behind on account of not being able to see and therefore understand what's going in class.


When kids develop a problem with one eye, they'll rarely let on, she adds. "If one eye has more of a visual need than the other, there is a strong chance that the good eye will take over, so they don't always notice."

This is particularly concerning because if it's not captured and treated under around eight years old, there is far less chance of ever improving vision in the poor eye. So a child may be left with a squint or a lazy eye, when earlier intervention could have solved the problem altogether.

"The impact of living with one eye for a younger person may be minimal. However, problems may occur in later life if the sight in the good eye is to deteriorate," explains Jonathan Ward, head of rehab services at Kent Association for the Blind (KAB).

You won't solve the problem by rushing to the optician's just as your child approaches eight, he adds.


​"The earlier a problem is detected, the greater the chance of successful treatment. This is especially true for younger children, in fact."


A particularly unhelpful myth is that putting children in glasses can be bad for them, says O'Connor. "There's this perception among some parents that encouraging a child to depend on glasses so early in their lives is bad for their longer-term eyesight. But the opposite is true. Glasses are a tool that can help improve their sight."

Eye tests can tell you about your child's more general health too, as Wendy's tale reveals. "We look at different parts of the eye and the kinds of thing this might reveal is a brain tumour, some cancers, diabetes and conditions such as childhood arthritis," says O'Connor.

GPs and health visitors complete a rudimentary eye exam around eight-months-old. And some areas of the country, such as East Kent, offer screen all children around the age of three and again when the child is in reception.

But a Which? survey carried out in 2011 showed that one in five primary care trusts was not screening children for vision problems. And even where this screening does happen, it is nowhere near as thorough as an eye test at the optician's.

The ideal, conclude opticians, is for parents to their children for an annual eye test from three-years-old. But remember that children don't need to be able to read to have their eyes examined, so take them when younger if you suspect any issues. But don't just pick any optician. Make sure they work regularly with children and better still, choose one that stands out. Boots, for example, is unusual in including the retinal photo as standard with all eye tests, which helps detect more serious conditions.

"We can't work out why eye tests for children of this age upwards aren't on parents' radar," says Ward. "But parents need to make eye care as routine for children as a visit to the dentist. It doesn't have to be costly – eye tests are free until a child is 16 and in fact most glasses are prescribed to children free of charge."

Signs to look out for

* Poor hand-eye coordination may indicate that the child has a squint or a lazy eye (an eye with reduced vision) or has one eye that is worse than the other, so the child can't use their two eyes together. The child may not complain of this, as – even if they notice it - they may assume that it is normal. After all it is quite normal to be able to write more easily with one hand than the other.

* If a child is short sighted they might struggle to see what the teacher writes on the whiteboard, and copy it down wrong, or rely on copying from their friends' work instead.

* If a child is very long-sighted, they might struggle with work at close range such as handwriting, reading and concentrating on small print and tasks requiring close focus. It is possible that a child's inability to read or concentrate on something may lead to a misunderstanding of the child's intelligence.

* It is especially important to make sure a child's eyes are tested if there is a history of a squint or lazy eye in your child's family, or if people in the family needed to wear glasses when they were young. You should also ensure that if your child has special needs your child has regular sight tests as children with special needs are more likely to have eye problems.

* If a child has a lazy eye it can often affect the child's 3D vision so it is a good idea to see if your child can see in 3D, for example by seeing their reaction if they watch a 3D film.

* Around five to eight per cent of children are affected by a squint or a squint-related condition, which means one or two in every group of 30 children.

* For older children and teens, it's key that they understand that eye health is essential to their wellbeing. If your child is using a screen for long periods of time, for example for doing homework, they should practise the 20-20-20 rule. Every 20 minutes look 20 feet away (six metres) for 20 seconds to give the eye muscles a break.

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