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Children in Northern Ireland are up to three times more likely to be long-sighted than children living in other parts of the world, according to new University of Ulster research.

In the first study of its kind in Ireland, researchers measured how well children could see, how long or short-sighted they were and measured the size and shape of their eyes.

More than 1,000 children aged six to seven and twelve to thirteen from different backgrounds and different sectors of the community took part over a three year period.

The research team made up of Dr Kathryn Saunders, Dr Lisa O’Donoghue and Dr Julie McClelland of Ulster’s Vision Science Research Group, based in the Biomedical Science Research Institute at Coleraine, are now revisiting the children to see how their eyes have changed, for the second phase of the Northern Ireland Childhood Errors Refraction Study.

Dr Saunders, Reader in Vision Science at Ulster, said: “It is important that children receive a full eye examination to properly detect and correct problems such as long-sightedness and astigmatism as early as possible in order to prevent difficulties in learning when they are at school and to minimise the risk of any permanent visual loss.

“These types of problems cannot be detected without a detailed examination as the eyes look normal and parents would not necessarily have any reason to think that their child is having difficulty seeing. But if left uncorrected by glasses, long-sightedness or astigmatism can, in some cases, result in permanent visual loss that can’t be treated in later childhood.

“Although Northern Ireland has a good quality screening service in place, unlike many areas of the United Kingdom and Ireland, school vision screening is not the same as a full eye examination and will not identify many long-sighted and astigmatic children.

“Most parents take their young children for early and regular dental checks however many people do not realise that there is also free early eye-care available for their children on most high streets and that it is crucial that they take advantage of this readily available service especially given the high levels of long-sighted and astigmatism that this new research has highlighted amongst children living here.”

The Northern Ireland Childhood Errors Refraction Study is being carried out in collaboration with the Aston Eye Study in Birmingham and is funded by the UK College of Optometrists.