by Dr. Florence Fernet-Leclair, Central Saanich Optometry Clinic
I did not see COVID-19 coming. You could say that it was due to my nearsightedness or lack of vision, but regardless, I now witness its effects in my exam chair daily. The pandemic has normalized work from home and virtual learning, which means our kids are spending more time indoors on digital devices and consequently spend less time outdoors. Lo and behold, these are known risk factors for the appearance of myopia (or nearsightedness). What we’ve got brewing here is a perfect storm: a Myopia Pandemic!
A study published in January 2021 revealed that “a substantial myopic shift was noted after home confinement due to COVID-19 for children aged six to eight years. The prevalence of myopia increased 1.4 to three times in 2020 compared with the previous five years.” This acceleration of myopia has been coined “quarantine myopia.” This trend towards an increase of myopia is not new, however, and is already widespread and ongoing. In fact, we estimate that by 2050, 50% of the world population will be affected by myopia.
Covid has helped to evolve our understanding of progressive myopia. In the past, myopia was attributed solely to genetics. This is partly true as having one myopic parent increases the risk by two to three times, and having two parents increases the risk by six times! Nowadays, we have found comprehensive evidence that myopia is largely affected by the environment. Younger growing eyes are more sensitive to environmental changes because they are at a crucial stage of development. I attribute my own myopia partly to my genetics, but largely to my childhood love for video games!
Not enough people realize why myopia is a medical concern. It is caused by an abnormal elongation of the eyeball where the eye has grown too long for its own good. The consequences of this elongation go far beyond needing glasses. The stretched-out eye is left vulnerable to sight-threatening eye diseases such as retinal detachments, glaucoma and macular degeneration, resulting in a permanent increased risk of blindness later in life.
There is hope! A new field of medicine called Myopia Control has emerged to flatten the curve of this Myopia Pandemic. Treatment options for myopic kids now exist such as specialized glasses, contact lenses or medicated eye drops which help to slow down the progression of myopia in children. It is important to note that these treatments work best early on, while the eye is still developing. These treatments can help preserve their eyesight well into the future.
I’m amazed to witness daily how incredibly resilient kids are through this pandemic; some even adapt to their nearsightedness without a single complaint to their parents. Because of this, I find that I routinely diagnose surprise myopia in kids, much to my chagrin. My advice for this year is this: Be kind, be calm, be safe, and bring kids to see the eye doctor!