Jennifer Hartman had no idea her child had a significant vision problem. The day after her daughter's sixth birthday, after an eye exam, she was diagnosed as being legally blind in one eye with a condition called amblyopia or lazy eye.
"There were no red flags, no symptoms, and she was succeeding in school," says parent Jennifer Hartman. "My husband and I were totally devastated to learn our daughter had such a significant problem with her vision and we had no idea and she never once complained."
Amblyopia is the leading cause of vision loss in children in Canada and three to five percent of children will have this sight and potentially career limiting condition.
"A comprehensive eye exam by an optometrist by the age of three years can save vision in the weaker or lazy eye," says Dr Catherine Chiarelli, a Toronto optometrist with the Ontario Association of Optometrists. "If treatment is left after the age of 10, success is very limited, as the nerve connections between the brain and the vision have been more solidified."
Amblyopia occurs when the vision in one eye doesn't develop properly in early childhood. This may be caused by misaligned eyes (called strabismus) or because one eye is out of focus compared with the other. When this happens, the brain 'shuts off' that eye, and the child depends only on the better eye to see.
The lazy eye often appears perfectly normal, and young children rarely notice or complain of reduced vision in only one eye. The only way to detect amblyopia is with an age-appropriate comprehensive eye examination. Annual eye examinations are covered by OHIP (provincial health insurance) for children up to 19 years of age. Children don't have to know the alphabet to receive an eye exam. Optometrists can use pictures and symbols instead of letters, along with a variety of other tests to determine the health of the eye.
The Ontario Association of Optometrists has launched a vision awareness program called Eye See...Eye Learn in Halton, Hamilton Wentworth, Peel and Windsor-Essex whereby junior kindergarten children can receive an OHIP-insured eye exam, and if required, a free pair of eyeglasses. The Association is hoping to identify children with conditions such as lazy eye and poor vision to ensure they have the best start to school.
For adults with life long amblyopia, protecting vision in the one good eye is critical to maintaining a certain lifestyle and independence. Persons with amblyopia are 23 times more likely to lose vision in their good eye at some time within their lifetime, compared to those without amblyopia. Persons with amblyopia are also limited in pursuing careers where good sight is a requirement, such as law enforcement, fire fighting and surgery.
"An eye exam at an early age can really make a huge impact on your child for the rest of his or her life," says Hartman. "We wished we had known sooner as the outcome would have been better for our daughter. Now I tell everyone to have their eyes examined by an eye doctor and not to be surprised like our family."