Myopia in East Asia at epidemic levels

Eshet Chayil Lim is seven and has myopia of 325 degrees in each eye.

Her myopia is high for a child of her age, say doctors. For now, the chirpy girl from St Margaret's Primary School has no problems with her short-sightedness, but her story is bearing out what researchers from three countries are calling an "epidemic" of myopia in East Asia, particularly in the big cities.

A study, led by Professor Ian Morgan of the Australian National University, was published in prestigious British medical journal The Lancet earlier this month.

In most Western countries, a reported 20 to 40 per cent of children have myopia, but in major cities in Japan, China, South Korea, as well as Hong Kong, the figure stands at 80 to 90 per cent of teens graduating from school with myopia.

Singapore is also a hotspot for this epidemic.

Reveals Professor Saw Seang Mei from the National University of Singapore's Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, a co-author of the study:

In Singapore,

  • One-third of Eshet's peers in Primary 2 are near-sighted.
  • When children leave primary school, 62 per cent of them are short-sighted.
  • When they are 18, 82 per cent of them are myopic.

The early onset of myopia (below the age of six or seven) means the child has a longer time to grow with the problem and this increases the chances of having severe myopia which can lead to blindness.

It is only recently that Asia has seen this extraordinary rise in the number of myopia cases.

The culprit is not all genetics, as previously assumed.

It seems that the main reason is how children in our and other academically focused Asian cities are spending their time.

Namely, in front of the computer and other gadgets instead of being out in the sun.

Sunlight essential for healthy eyes

Sunlight essential for healthy eyes

Yes, the sun.

The children "face massive educational pressures" and a culture that does not appreciate time spent outdoors.

Sunlight is essential for healthy eyes as soaking up the sun's rays produces the chemical dopamine. The compound prevents the eyeball from becoming elongated and from distorting light that enters the eye - signs of myopia.

Local children spend about half an hour outdoors on weekdays, which is insufficient, says Prof Saw.

This compares with three hours for the typical child in Australia.

The time spent staring at screens "can be a contributing factor," Prof Morgan maintains in an interview with news agency AFP.

Eshet's case seems to bear out what the researchers have surmised.

She has a voracious appetite for books. Twice a week, her 43-year-old mother, Madam Kek Ai Ling, visits the library to borrow books for her and each time, the housewife checks out over 10 books for Eshet.

Her parents discovered Eshet was myopic during an annual eye check-up in kindergarten.

At five, she was found to have myopia of 125 degrees.

"We were very worried and shocked to learn of it because Eshet doesn't watch many TV shows," says her father, Mr Simon Perez Lim, a 47-year-old pastor.

Madam Kek believes that her daughter's constant viewing of educational videos on the computer may have contributed to the problem.

Dr Leonard Ang, medical director of The Singapore Medical Group's The Eye & Cornea Transplant Centre, says school children face pressure to study harder these days.

They also have more access to gadgets such as iPads and mobile phones.

"There's a definite correlation between the amount of near work and the rate of myopia," he maintains.

Opthamologists and optometrists we spoke to say they have seen severe cases of myopia in children.

Kids should be outdoors at least 15 hours a week

Kids should be outdoors at least 15 hours a week

Mr Brian Chan from B.S. Moey-Chong Optometrist says he came across a 10-year-old child with myopia of 900 degrees.

Others reveal that they have seen seven-year-old kids having myopia of 650 degrees.

Joseph Lim, 13, has high myopia - of 800 to 900 degrees and has been wearing spectacles since he was seven.

His mother, Mrs Mabel Lim, 42, an administrative executive, believes that his bad posture contributes to the problem. She says: "He slouches when he's doing his work and bends very low.

"I have to remind him to sit upright and do his work (in a brightly lit environment)."

His degree of short-sightedness means Joseph is effectively incapacitated without his glasses.

"Sometimes when I wake up after a nap, I can't remember where I left my glasses," says the Dunearn Secondary School student.

He then has to feel around blindly for them until they are found.

Joseph's parents and three younger siblings are short-sighted too. But only his parents have high myopia of over 600 degrees.

Researchers are looking at how to treat myopia and prevent it from getting worse.

But for now, Prof Saw recommends that kids be outdoors at least 15 hours a week.

This article was first published in The New Paper.

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