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Health, Science, Environment

Free screening helps young eyes

Among the children who have been helped by the Lions eye screening is Lauren Simpkins. 300 pixels. 2008
Provided Missouri Lions Eye Research

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: June 26, 2008 - Starting school and learning how to read is difficult for most children, but almost impossible for students who must struggle simply to see what is written on a page or the chalkboard.

Many children with undiagnosed visual impairments such as amblyopia, farsightedness or nearsightedness struggle with their school activities. Some visually impaired students, whose visual problems go undiagnosed, are incorrectly identified as having learning delays.

The Missouri Lions Eye Research Foundation conducts free eye screenings for children ages 6 months to 6 years to identify children who have visual impairment and refer them to an eye specialist.

Volunteers with the foundation travel to schools, day-care centers and health fairs throughout the state to conduct screenings. From July 10 to July 13, they will be at the St. Louis Science Center offering these free eye evaluations.

The screenings are simple, quick -- and free. A special photorefractive camera takes a picture of the child's eyes. The photos are sent to volunteer pediatric ophthalmologists who study a red eye flash pattern in the photo to determine if a vision condition like amblyopia, commonly known as "lazy eye," nearsightedness or farsightedness might exist.

Within weeks, parents are sent a postcard that informs them whether their children have any eye conditions and refers them a specialist if necessary.

"The hardest part of the screenings is to get the kids to hold still," says Annie Kuhl, public relations and development manager of the foundation. The camera displays flashing lights and plays music to draw the attention of the child.

The foundation is concerned especially with early detection of amblyopia, which occurs when the brain ignores information sent from one eye. Eventually the weak, or amblyopic, eye will cease to function properly and the stronger of the two eyes will take over, leading to vision problems. The condition can occur because of a focusing problem (where one eye is more nearsighted, farsighted, or astigmatic than the other) or because of a strabismus in which one or both eyes cross in or turn out.

Eye Research Foundation volunteers have screened more than 100,000 children and referred more than 7,000 children for eye examinations-- children who most likely would never have received an exam at such a young age. Many children with amblyopia display no outward symptoms and may be too young to verbalize trouble seeing.

According to Kuhl, approximately 5 percent of the population has amblyopia, yet it often goes unnoticed in young children. Kuhl stresses the importance of early detection of amblyopia to prevent learning delays in school-aged children and to correct the problem before the child's visual system matures.

A child's visual system continues developing until around age 9. Before 9, while the visual system is still developing, amblyopia can be easily corrected by simply placing a patch over the weaker, amblyopic, eye. However, once the visual system has completed development, amblyopia cannot be corrected without surgery.

Jennifer Bright, of St. Clair, Mo., said she and her husband never suspected that their 5-year-old daughter, Allison, had any vision problems until an Eye Research Foundation volunteer came to visit Allison's kindergarten class.

When they received a postcard referring her to an eye doctor, they thought there must have been a mistake. The ophthalmologist found Allison was severely farsighted -- a problem that was easily fixed with glasses.

Jennifer reports that on the drive from the eye doctor to her karate lesson, Allison looked out the window at the world passing by as if it was her first time seeing it. She is currently enrolled in the gifted program in first grade summer school. Correcting her vision with glasses early prevented her from having difficulty learning to read. Allison's so comfortable in her pink glasses with hearts on the arms that she sometimes forgets to take them off before getting into bed and wonders why anyone would ever wear contacts.

The Lions Club, founded in Chicago in 1917, has been committed to ending preventable blindness since 1925, when Helen Keller addressed the Lions International convention in Cedar Point, Ohio. There she challenged Lions members to become "knights of the blind in the crusade against darkness."

The amblyopia eye screenings are only one of many programs Eye Research Foundation has in the battle against blindness. It also screens adults for glaucoma, helps make eye care available for indigent adults, recycles eye glasses to developing nations, runs the Heartland Lions Bank of eye tissue for cornea implants and funds ocular research.

Becky Henderson is a member of the Florissant Valley Lions Club and has helped with the amblyopia screenings since 1999. Originally, she volunteered alongside her husband, Wayne. After he died, she continued working for the foundation in his memory. She says she will continue to run amblyopia screenings as long as she can carry the equipment.

Rachel Machefsky is a freelance writer. To reach her, contact Beacon features and commentary editor Donna Korando.

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