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Effort foresees full eye exams for all infants.

Byline: THE HEALTH FILES By Tim Christie The Register-Guard

Dr. Carol Marusich and her friends at the American Optometric Association are trying to change the way parents think about their babies' eyes.

They want infants to get more than just simple vision screening given by pediatricians at well-baby checks. They want every child to have a complete eye exam between 6 months and 12 months of age, so that vision problems can be caught - and treated - early.

And they're putting their time and money where their mouths are by recruiting a national network of optometrists who will conduct such exams for infants free of charge, no strings attached.

"We do early intervention in everything, but we seem to forget about vision," said Marusich, who has been practicing in Eugene since 1981.

Dubbed InfantSEE, the program will launch nationwide in June. By that time, the AOA plans to have recruited enough optometrists willing to provide the free exams to infants. Former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Roslyn, are the honorary chairs of the program; two of their grandchildren had eye disease.

Vision disorders are the fourth most common disability in the United States and the most prevalent handicapping condition in children, according to a 1999 survey.

It's estimated that 2 percent to 3 percent of babies born each year have a tendency to develop amblyopia, sometimes called "lazy eye," in which a loss of vision occurs in one or both eyes. For instance, if the eyes are misaligned, one eye becomes stronger and the "weak" eye doesn't develop properly.

"If you don't treat it early, your opportunity to recover good, 20/20 vision dwindles," she said.

Early eye exams are important because they can detect problems such as amblyopia that won't necessarily be caught at vision screenings conducted by pediatricians, Marusich said.

A study in the journal Pediatrics found that as many as one-third of children who received a late diagnosis for amblyopia had been screened as preschoolers. Another Pediatrics study found that among children who failed a screening, 50 percent of their parents didn't know about it two months later.

Parents are hesitant to bring young children to optometrists, she said, because "they don't realize vision is learned." Most people assume the two eyes work together, but often in babies they don't, at least not right away, she said.

Marusich said she gets frustrated every August when parents bring in their young children for back-to-school exams, and she discovers vision problems that could have been treated years earlier.

"The last thing you want is your little first-grader wearing an eye patch to school," she said.

Marusich has been at the forefront of getting early exams for young children, and she's been doing it in her practice for two decades. A member of the AOA's advisory board for InfantSEE, she helped develop the education program for optometrists participating in the program on how to integrate infants into a primary care practice. And she's been pitching the program to regional optometrist groups around the country.

She's excited about some of the new tools available to optometrists specifically designed for children.

For instance, she has a set of paddles that she holds up in tandem in front of an infant. One is just plain gray; the other has an image of an animal on a gray background, and she watches where the infant's eyes go to see if they can see the image.

Annamay Bertholf of Eugene is the mother of twins - Donovan and Lauren. She took Lauren to see Marusich when the girl was 6 months old after noticing that unlike her brother's, Lauren's eyes never stopped crossing.

The diagnosis was reassuring - muscle weakness and a little farsightedness. Now 15 months, Lauren gets regular checkups to make sure her eyes are developing correctly.

"I felt really relieved," Bertholf said. "Everybody wants their baby to be perfect - it was just nice to not have to worry about it and know somebody was keeping an eye on it.'


InfantSEE, the American Optometric Association's campaign to provide free, full eye exams for infants, will launch this June. For more information, visit the association's Web site at
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Title Annotation:Health
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jan 10, 2005
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