Do we need to rethink our attitude to eye health and eye care? A new report called The State of The Nation: Eye Health 2016 thinks that we do, particularly when it comes to the eye health of children.

Nearly a fifth of school children are estimated to have undiagnosed vision problems — an alarming statistic.

Childrens' eye problems could be jeopardising their education; most teaching approaches take vision for granted and so much of our learning is visual.

Yet according to the results of a poll of 10,000 participants, 27 per cent of parents of children aged three to 16 said their children had not had an eye test before their eighth birthday; while a further 26 per cent said that their children had not had an eye test within the past two years. This is despite the fact that sight tests are free on the NHS for all children under 16 (and free for all in Scotland) and free for those under 19 in full time education.

 

Screening

 

The report, from Specsavers and the Royal National Institute of Blind People, says that screening should take place in schools for children aged between four and five — as recommended by The UK National Screening Committee — in order to detect reduced vision. But, currently, just over half of English local authorities commission such a service.

The fact is, however, that screening can be hugely beneficial. “Sight loss and vision problems can continue to occur throughout childhood, and parents and carers need to respond by taking children for eye tests,” says Dr Nigel Best from Specsavers. “It is vitally important that people realise that once a child reaches the age of eight their eyes have fully developed."

"Eight could be too late, and the knock-on effects can be huge.”

- Dr Nigel Best, Specsavers

In young children, early diagnosis and treatment can prevent permanent reduced vision. Plus, common conditions such as amblyopia (lazy eye), myopia (short-sightedness) and squint can be difficult to detect — another reason for regular eye testing. “If there is a history of a squint or lazy eye in the family,” notes the report, “parents are encouraged to have their child’s eyes tested by an optometrist as soon as possible.” Children do not have to be able to read or talk to have an eye test.

 

Symptoms

 

Parents also need to be more alert to their children's eye health. For example, if your child struggles to recognise colours and shapes, there may be something wrong with their vision. Other signs include frequently bumping into things; not showing any interest in learning to read; complaining about headaches, and sitting very close to the TV. Physical symptoms may include frequent eye-rubbing; squinting, head-tilting or closing one eye when trying to focus; excessive blinking or tearing; one eye turning in or out; and red, sore and encrusted eyelids.

Sight tests are free on the NHS for all children under 16, and those under 19 in full-time education

“Sight plays a vital part in a child’s development of language, social and cognitive skills,” says Dr Philippa Simkiss, head of evidence and service impact at RNIB. “Visual impairment in children creates unique challenges to learning and development, which can have a profound impact on their education and wellbeing. Local councils should implement the National Screening Committee recommendation and commission vision screening in schools for children aged between four and five.”