Protecting and Preserving Children’s Eye Health Year-Round

August is Children’s Eye Health and Safety Month. Because children usually won’t take precautions for their eye health themselves, it’s important that parents and family members play an active role in their children’s vision health.

Because so much of learning in school is visual, undiagnosed eye problems can result in academic setbacks in many areas, especially in reading and writing. If children have a hard time seeing their books or the board in the classroom, they may seem uninterested or frustrated when in reality they are having problems seeing.

So what is eye health?

To learn more, Healthy Me PA sat down with Dr. Alex Levin, Wills Eye Hospital’s Chief of Pediatric Ophthalmology and Ocular Genetics, a global leader in ophthalmology.

“Eye health is the mindful attention that one spends on appreciating the fact that we need our vision to do the things we do,” Dr. Levin said. “And we must make sure that we maintain our vision through periodic checkups and behaviors consistently to protect our eyes from harm.”

Maintaining proper eye health is particularly important for children, Dr. Levin said, because they are prone to issues that interfere with vision development. Oftentimes, children don’t know how to tell adults they have a vision problem. If they have a problem in one eye, they will continue to use their good eye and never tell anyone or show signs of the problems they are experiencing. If they have problems in both eyes, such as blurry vision, children might not even know that something is wrong, Dr. Levin said.

Most children’s eye accidents happen at home, involving sharp, everyday objects. Sports-related activities also are a common cause of eye injury, so it’s important that parents become advocates for their children’s eye health.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Ophthalmology, and the American Academy of Pediatric Ophthalmology agree that children do not need to see an eye doctor until a problem is indicated. Children should have their vision screened by their pediatrician or family doctor at every well-child visit, and only when those doctors feel there is something of concern will they make a referral to an eye doctor.

“As a parent, eye protection is unfortunately quite difficult, which is why we rely on our primary care doctors to screen for vision problems appropriately. All of our kids are active, and they run around and they do all kinds of things, and accidents do happen despite our best efforts,” Dr. Levin said.

Wills Eye Hospital is the oldest eye-only hospital in the country. U.S. News ranks it second in the nation for ophthalmology. Wills Eye sees any child, regardless of the family’s ability to pay, and will see any child that needs to be seen with any problem.

Located in the Philadelphia area, Wills Eye is extremely active in providing eye care for children. It conducts an intensive screening program in the community.

“We visit schools in the Philadelphia area and provide free vision screening, free glasses for children that need them, and referrals to Wills Eye Hospital when children seem to have eye problems that are more than what glasses can correct,” Dr. Levin said. “That program reaches a huge number, helping thousands of children in the Philadelphia area.”

In addition, every year on Give Kids Sight Day, Wills Eye opens its doors and will see any child in Philadelphia who wants free eye care.

“They can get a screening, they can get free glasses if they need them, and they can even get a free pediatric ophthalmology exam from one of the world’s greatest eye hospitals—all at no cost. We saw 1,200 children last year and gave out 1,200 pairs of glasses. There were 600 children in need of glasses, and they each got two pairs,” Dr. Levin said.

“So that is a great opportunity, combined with our screening program, that we can help kids be screened for their eye health.”

In Pennsylvania, every child in school is required to undergo vision screening every year. In Philadelphia, Wills Eye helps school nurses achieve that through its screening program.

“Each year, in Philadelphia alone, approximately 22,000 children fail their eye-screening examination in school. And, believe it or not, of those 22,000 children, only 5,000 are taken to see the eye doctor by their parents,” Dr. Levin said. “Which means approximately 17,000 school-aged children a year do not get taken to an eye doctor after they’ve been identified as needing vision care.”

Because of these eye-opening numbers, and the negative effects vision problems can have on a child’s learning and cognitive development, Dr. Levin had one final takeaway for parents to remember.

“Kids can’t speak for themselves, so we have to speak for them,” he said.