Preemies at risk of retinal detachment

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Premature babies have an increased risk of retinal detachment later in life, according to a large new study.

Retinal detachment can lead to vision loss and even blindness unless it is treated with surgery.

Researchers analysed data from more than 3 million people born in Sweden between 1973 and 2008. Those born at less than 37 weeks' gestation were divided into two groups: preemies born between 1973 and 1986, and preemies born between 1987 and 2008.

In 1986, Sweden introduced a national screening program for the eye condition known as "retinopathy of prematurity". This condition causes abnormal blood vessels to grow in the retina the back of the eye and can cause retinal detachment, according to background information in a news release from the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

Increased risks

Compared with babies born at full-term, people born extremely prematurely (less than 28 weeks of gestation) between 1973 and 1986 had a 19-fold increased risk of retinal detachment, while those born extremely prematurely between 1987 and 2008 had a nine fold increased risk, the investigators found.

Meanwhile, those born very prematurely (28 to 31 weeks of gestation) between 1973 and 1986 had a fourfold increased risk and those born very prematurely between 1987 and 2008 had a threefold greater risk than those born at term.

Moderately premature birth (32 to 36 weeks of gestation) was not associated with an increased risk of retinal detachment, according to the study in the November issue of the journal Ophthalmology.

"We may just be seeing the tip of the iceberg of late [eye] complications after preterm birth," lead researcher Dr Anna-Karin Edstedt Bonamy, a paediatrician at Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, said in an academy news release.

Need for eye care follow-up

"Not only does the risk of retinal detachment increase with age, but there has also been an increase in survival among people born prematurely since the 1970s. This provides opportunities for future research to address if the increased risk persists among those born prematurely as they age," she added.

The findings show the need for eye care follow-up of children and adults who were born extremely or very prematurely, the researchers said.

Although the study found a higher risk for future retinal detachment in very premature infants, it did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship.

With more than a half a million premature babies born each year, the United States has the sixth largest number of premature births worldwide, according to the news release.

More information

The US National Eye Institute has more about retinal detachment.

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