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Collaborative study shows children in the Republic of Ireland are four times more likely to suffer from amblyopia, more commonly known as a lazy eye, after the optimum treatment period than children in Northern Ireland.

The two populations are broadly similar in terms of their genetic, demographic and ocular profiles but have very different public health and eye-care systems. Researchers from Ulster University and Technological University Dublin attribute the disparity in vision outcomes of children across the border on differences in access to timely identification and treatment of lazy eye in the Republic. The study recently published in the BMJ Open Journal reports that while the same number of children develop lazy eye in the Republic and in Northern Ireland, the number successfully treated is significantly fewer in the Republic. This was particularly the case for those children in the Republic whose lazy eye wasn’t accompanied by a squint or eye turn, those who were socio-economically disadvantaged and where compliance with spectacle wear was poor.

Amblyopia is one of the most common eye problems in children. It is commonly known as a lazy eye and occurs when one or both eyes are unable to build a strong link to the brain. Although it is sometimes accompanied by a squint or eye turn, most often it is not possible to tell just by looking at a child whether they have a lazy eye or not. As many as one in 20 children will develop a lazy eye and the problem can be successfully treated with glasses and sometimes eye patches if caught before the age of eight. If the condition is not treated in this timeframe it can lead to a lifelong visual impairment.

One of the lead authors Kathryn Saunders, Professor of Optometry at Ulster University commented;

“This research provides concrete evidence for the life enhancing benefit of school-entry vision screening, prompt treatment and access to free eye care in community settings such as that available through NHS structures in Northern Ireland. Amblyopia is a relatively common and treatable vision deficit and in Northern Ireland when a child is identified as having reduced vision a rapid treatment plan is routinely put in place through NHS eye clinics and high street optometrists with NHS funding available for parents to purchase glasses needed as part of the treatment. School-entry vision screening is not as comprehensive in the Republic and, even if reduced vision is detected in children, long waiting times for treatment, a lack of free primary eye care and the absence of financial help for glasses result in long-term negative effects on children’s sight.”

Síofra Harrington of Technological University Dublin said;

"This has been a hugely beneficial collaborative experience understanding the difference in persistent amblyopia prevalence in Northern Ireland versus the Republic of Ireland. There are some learning experiences from the NHS system, which could be applied by the HSE, with the potential to reduce amblyopia prevalence by almost 80%."

Read the full study