COVID-19 restrictions may have unintended consequences for young eyes

Young Australians studying from home during the COVID-19 pandemic still need to spend time outside to prevent near-sightedness, according to a researcher from The University of Western Australia.

The article, published today in MJA Insight+, advises that the COVID-19 restrictions may have unintended consequences for the eye health of students in the long term if simple preventative measures are not applied.

While restrictions have eased, Australians are still directed to spend the majority of their time at home and many schools and universities have transitioned to remote learning, expecting students to study from home.

However, spending insufficient time outside has been linked with an increased risk of developing myopia, an eye condition that develops earlier in life and has long-term health consequences, including vision loss.

Australia has a relatively low prevalence of myopia in young adults of 20-25 per cent, partly attributed to Australian children spending more time outside.

Lead researcher Gareth Lingham, a PhD student from UWA’s Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences and the Lions Eye Institute, said that without the incidental outdoor exposure that students get before, during and after school or university, there was an increased risk of developing myopia.

Compared to children in Singapore, where the prevalence of myopia in young adults is around 80 per cent, Australian children spend up to one hour more time outside each day.

The largest difference in outdoor behavior between Australian and Singaporean children occurs during school hours. Australian children spent more time outside before school, during recess and lunch times and after school, compared to Singaporean children.

While it is not clear whether months of spending reduced time outdoors is enough to substantially increase risk of myopia, research into outdoor activities in school children has detected a significant difference in the incidence of myopia over a period of 12 months.”

Lead researcher Gareth Lingham, PhD student from UWA’s Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences and the Lions Eye Institute

Mr Lingham said in order to prevent a spike in the number of young Australians with myopia, children, adolescents and young adults should be encouraged to spend time outside, within the bounds of COVID-19 restrictions.

The solution is simple in principle — encourage children, adolescents and young adults, particularly those studying from home, to spend a portion of their time outside, either around the home or exercising outside the home.

Not all Australians have the luxury of an outdoor space, in which case sitting near a window or in an area that receives natural sunlight is a reasonable alternative.

The COVID-19 restrictions are imperative to save lives, but we should be working to minimize the long-term harm of restrictions wherever possible.”

Gareth Lingham

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