Low Vision and Blindness: Causes and Prevention
Medical technology is helping to identify more specific causes of disabilities, information that may then lead to either cures or preventive measures. For example, two causes of visual disabilities were reduced dramatically during the last part of the 20th Century: retinopathy of prematurity (ROP) and rubella. Today, precaution are being taken to prevent many cases of ROP in low birth weight babies, and when ROP is not prevented, it often can be corrected with eye surgery. Today, a vaccine protects everyone from rubella, a cause of congenital visual disabilities and also of multiple disabilities.
Almost half of the children who are blind have the disability because of prenatal factors, mostly hereditary. Researchers are working to identify genes that cause some forms of blindness. The gene that causes retinitis pigmentosa has now been located and isolated, and there is hope for a cure in the near future. Other medical advances—such as laser treatment, surgery, and corneal implants—also help to reduce the incidence of visual disabilities among children or to lessen their severity. Although medical advances have reduced the prevalence of visual disabilities in children, medical technology can cause increases in this disability as well. Today more infants survive premature birth and very low birth weights of even less than two pounds. The result, however, is often the child having multiple disabilities, frequently including visual disabilities (Dote-Kwan, Chen, & Hughes, 2001; Hatton, 2001).
In many cases visual disabilities can now be prevented, but a great deal more could be done. For example, the incidence of visual disabilities can be greatly reduced by protecting against eye injuries (Prevent Blindness America, 2005a & b). In many cases, prevention is truly the application of common sense and reasonable safety measures. Each year thousands of children under the age of five have eye injuries (Prevent Blindness America, 2005a). These accidents occur at home, at school, or in the car, and many of them could be prevented. Putting sharp objects (even pencils) out of the reach of children, being certain that toys are safe, and getting help as soon as possible when injuries do happen can make all the difference. Early treatment can avoid a lifetime of visual problems.
For those visual disabilities that cannot be avoided, their impact can be lessened through early and consistent treatment. Unfortunately, not all U.S. children have early access to health care. In fact, poor children are between 1.2 and 1.8 times more likely to have visual disabilities (Sherman, 1994). Considering the long-term costs to society and to these individuals, the problem of access to health care must be addressed.
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