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Retinopathy of Prematurity

Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP) occurs in premature babies and is potentially blinding, depending on the severity of the disease and how quickly it is treated.

As medical technology has advanced, physicians are able to save babies born earlier and earlier than their due date. Because of their prematurity, these children are at risk of developing ROP. Prematurity can alter the normal development of blood vessels in the retina, the light-sensitive portion of the eye essential for vision. Abnormal blood vessels can grow from the retina and lead to scar tissue which can result in a retinal detachment.

ROP is classified in five stages, depending on the extent of development of abnormal vessels and detachment of the retina from the eye wall. Many children can develop stages 1-3 and have spontaneous improvement as they get closer to their original due date. Some, however, will continue to progress and left untreated can develop stage 4 or 5.

Early detection by an ophthalmologist experienced in ROP is key, as is timely treatment. At its "threshold" state, when the disease is severe, the risk of blindness in untreated eyes exceeds 47 percent. ROP can progress very quickly, leaving a short window of opportunity for intervention. Non-invasive laser therapy can greatly reduce the risk in children with advanced ROP.

Premature babies don't show any obvious symptoms. Warning signs develop only after ROP has become severe or the retina has detached. For many infants, abnormal vessels disappear on their own without damaging their vision. For others with more advanced ROP, standard treatments are laser surgery and/or cryotherapy (freezing), which may impede the growth of abnormal blood vessels and scar tissue. Even with treatment, vision loss may occur. If retinal detachment occurs, surgery may restore some vision.

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