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Children born with sight loss on the increase

Charity says that as survival rates of premature babies improves more are likely to be sight impaired

Mark Gould

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Childhood sight loss is on the increase in the UK according to new research, but rising numbers of babies being born with sight problems and delays in diagnosis mean that some children are unnecessarily impaired.

Blind Children UK, formerly the National Blind Children’s Society (NBCS), says its research reveals that as more premature babies are surviving than ever before, more are likely to be sight impaired at birth.

The research examines government data across the UK and the results of a survey of blind and partially sighted children and their families. It revealed that the number of children being registered blind or partially sighted has increased by 9% since 2006. The biggest rise has been seen among those under the age of five where a 12% rise was reported.

And as more premature babies (those born before 26 weeks) are surviving than ever before , it is likely that more will be born with vision impairments. The charity estimated that the number of babies being born with sight difficulties as a result of being premature has risen by 22% over the past decade to more than 1,800. The earlier children are born, the greater the risk of vision impairment, with one in 20 (5%) severely premature babies now likely to be born blind.

A quarter of the parents surveyed said that they had to wait longer than a year to have their child diagnosed with a vision impairment. Almost half (43%) of these felt that this delay had a ‘negative’ or ‘strongly negative’ effect on their child’s development as it meant that they did not get the support needed from their local authority or school.   

“Every day a child with sight loss goes without support, it dramatically affects their development,” said Richard Leaman, the chief executive of Blind Children UK. “As much as 80% of a sighted child’s learning takes place using vision. Without this, it’s impossible for a young boy or girl to develop fully and make sense of the world around them. We help children and their families tackle all the challenges of sight loss, so that they can enjoy their childhood and fully realise their potential as adults.”

The survey also revealed that blind and partially sighted children are being prevented from enjoying and accessing basic education and recreational experiences that are taken for granted by other families. Some 40% of parents said that their child had had difficulty accessing events or playgrounds in their local area. There were also instances of children being rejected from schools and nurseries as well as swimming lessons because of their vision impairments.  

The impact of these struggles on families cannot be underestimated, with 93% of parents reporting that they had felt depressed, isolated or upset because of their child’s vision impairment.

“Every day four children in the UK are registered blind or partially sighted,” said Lord Chris Holmes, decorated Paralympian and ambassador for Blind Children UK. “Sight loss can leave children feeling isolated and afraid – I know this from personal experience. Blind Children UK helps gives children the skills, confidence and support to enable them to enjoy their childhood and reach their potential as adults.”

Joanna Page, actress and ambassador for Blind Children UK, added, “As a new mother, I have great empathy for parents of children with sight loss. Blind Children UK is trying to raise awareness of the problem and ensure that children who do have a vision impairment are diagnosed as early as possible so that they can receive the support they need.”  

To help parents spot the signs of early sight loss the charity has released an ‘advice to parents’ leaflet which can be found on its website and in the Bounty packs that are given to expecting and new mothers. It has also created a short film, ‘Opening Up The World’, to help other families and children understand more about the challenges of living with sight loss and the work that the charity does.

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