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Task Force Recommends Vision Screening for Children Younger Than 5 Years Old

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Press Release Date: May 25, 2004

Children who are younger than 5 years old should be screened in the primary care setting for vision problems, including lazy eye, crossed eyes, and near-and far-sightedness, according to a new recommendation issued today from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. The finding is published in the May/June issue of the Annals of Family Medicine.

The Task Force, an independent panel of experts sponsored by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, found fair evidence that screening tests can lead to detection of lazy eye (known by the clinical term "amblyopia"), crossed eyes (knows as "strabismus") and near- and far-sightedness. Children found to have one of these conditions should be referred to a specialized eye care professional for further testing. Left untreated, amblyopia may lead to visual impairment and may harm a child's ability to learn or affect his or her performance in school.

Visual impairment is a common condition that affects 5 percent to 10 percent of preschool age children. Between 1 percent and 4 percent of preschool age children have amblyopia, and an estimated 5 percent to 7 percent have refractive errors.

"Early testing for vision problems is key to preventing learning disabilities or in some cases, significant visual impairment in children," said Task Force Chair Ned Calonge, M.D., who is also Chief Medical Officer and State Epidemiologist for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. "Screening, including the newer methods available, can help parents and clinicians detect and treat vision problems early."

Typically, children who are 3 or older are tested in the primary care setting using wall charts that ask the child to identify specific letters or symbols. For younger children who may have difficulty communicating verbally, new methods of photoscreening using specially equipped cameras to capture a picture of the child's pupil have been developed for use by trained eye care professionals. Because photoscreening requires minimal cooperation from the child, this method has the potential to increase vision screening rates among children.

Other methods used by primary care physicians for screening children under 1 year old include the cover test and the Hirschberg light reflex test. The cover test is performed by covering each eye and observing the other eye for movement. The Hirschberg light reflex test is performed by shining a light and observing the reflection of light from the patient's cornea.

The Task Force is the leading independent panel of private-sector experts in prevention and primary care and conducts rigorous, impartial assessments of the scientific evidence for a broad range of preventive services. Its recommendations are considered the gold standard for clinical preventive services. The Task Force based its conclusions on reports from research teams led by AHRQ's Evidence-based Practice Centers at RTI-International-University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Oregon Evidence-based Practice Center in Portland.

The Task Force grades the strength of the evidence from "A" (strongly recommends), "B" (recommends), "C" (no recommendation for or against), "D" (recommends against) or "I" (insufficient evidence to recommend for or against screening). The Task Force recommends screening children younger than 5 years of age for amblyopia, strabismus, and defects in visual acuity (B recommendation).

The screening for visual impairment in children younger than 5 years of age recommendations and materials for clinicians are available on the AHRQ Web site at Previous Task Force recommendations, summaries of the evidence, easy-to-read fact sheets explaining the recommendations, and related materials are available from the AHRQ Publications Clearinghouse by calling (800) 358-9295 or sending an E-mail to Clinical information also is available from the National Guideline Clearinghouse™.

Editor's Note: Audio news releases in English and Spanish are available for download in MP3 format. Please go to

For more information, please contact AHRQ Public Affairs: (301) 427-1246 or (301) 427-1865.


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