Early diagnosis to avoid blindness for babies

Smaller and more premature babies are surviving than ever before. That's leading to a rise in the number of cases of retinopathy of prematurity, or ROP. It's a blinding eye disorder that the National Eye Institute says affects as many as 16,000 preemies in the US every year. Stevie Wonder was born six weeks too early and went blind. There is a doctor in Oregon who is pioneering ways to keep these babies from going blind.

Samuel and Henry Bowen were born at 23 weeks and weighed less than two pounds each. Their parents had never heard of ROP before the twins were diagnosed with it.

"There are so many things that could potentially happen in the beginning especially for babies that early that eyesight and blindness wasn't even something that we'd thought about yet," said Michael Bowen, the twins' dad.

"The blood vessels have number one, gotten thicker, and they've gotten torturous, meaning wiggly," explained Michael F. Chiang, MD.

The image of Henry's eye at 34 weeks showed aggressive ROP. Untreated, it could detach the retina and blind him.

Dr. Chiang, Pediatric Ophthalmologist with Elks Children's Eye Clinic at Oregon Health & Science University, is leading the charge for early screening and treatment of ROP.

Instead of using traditional laser or cryotherapy, he injected Henry's eyes with Avastin.

"In the course of a week, it basically reversed itself. If you diagnose it early enough that you can treat it, prevent a baby from going blind for their entire lifetime, we've got to make that diagnosis correct, we've got to make it on time," said Dr. Chiang.

Dr. Chiang is trying to eliminate two obstacles to early diagnosis: accessibility to experts and a lack of standardized tests. He's creating a telemedicine solution.

"They would take a picture, send it to us and we could look at it and we could have our computer systems that we're developing analyze those images and try to make a better diagnosis," Dr. Chiang shared.

The Bowens are grateful for their boys' early diagnosis.

Samuel's eyes improved on their own, and Henry's checkups have been good.

"He's still not out of the woods yet, but from where it was before to where it is now is a big difference," said Bowen.

Henry may still need laser therapy when he's bigger. And both boys may still be severely nearsighted. Still, there were no successful treatments for ROP until the late 80's and even today they sometimes fail. Dr. Chiang gives a lot of credit for his work to the Oregon State Elks, which helped fund his research.
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