Zara was only three days old when she was diagnosed with an eye condition usually associated with people decades older
“Nothing could be wrong, they’re just being overly cautious,” new mum Jessica told herself when specialists referred her newborn baby to another department.
Little Zara was only days old when an observant nurse made a discovery that may have saved the girl’s full eyesight.
It was late 2020 when South Australian woman Jessica Loielo gave birth.
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She didn’t think much of it when a paediatric nurse, carrying out a routine check of the baby, noticed something she thought was unusual.
“One of the checks she did is actually shining a light in the baby’s eyes, which is really tricky at that age because they’re sleeping all the time, their eyes are always closed,” Jessica told 7NEWS.com.au.
“So, I’ll never forget this lady, because she saw something briefly and said it wasn’t quite right.
“And she’s like ‘I just want my boss to come and have a look’.”
Later the same day, baby Zara was referred to the ophthalmology department.
“At the time I was in this little love bubble, so smitten by the baby and I thought nothing could be wrong,” Jessica said.
She was wrong.
Zara, at only three days old, was diagnosed with a cataract.
A cataract is a clouding of the normally clear lens of the eye. Most cataracts develop slowly over several years.
But, as Jessica and Zara would find out, it can occur in newborns – albeit rarely.
Cataract Kids Australia founding director Dr Megan Prictor said that, in many cases, the cause of cataracts in children is unknown.
In some other cases, it is genetic.
Jessica was asked if she had a history of cataracts in her family. She replied yes, her grandfather had surgery.
But that wasn’t what the doctors meant. They wanted to know if any of her relatives had been born with cataracts. She said she didn’t even know it was possible.
A little more than five weeks later and Zara would go under the knife to have the cataract removed.
Now, she wears an eyepatch – but not on the eye that had the cataract.
Instead, it’s on her “good” eye so it doesn’t develop disproportionately.
“She’s a little bit older now. She understands that there’s something covering her eye and she’s learnt how to rip it off,” Jessica says.
“We have some pretty terrible days, you know, I think I’ll lose count of how many times she rips it off … sometimes we’re going through five, six, seven patches a day.”
Prictor, who established Cataract Kids Australia in 2017 after her son was born with cataracts in both eyes, says there are two key warning signs to be aware of.
“Any white or grey spot on a baby’s pupil should be considered as an emergency until it’s confirmed one way or the other,” she said.
“The other warning sign, which is a bit more subtle, is when you know newborn’s eyes kind of wander around.
“They don’t necessarily work together very well.
“They should be lined up and working straight, like working together, by the time the baby is about 10 or 12 weeks of age.
“It’s any time after that age, even if it only happens occasionally, that can be a sign that something is wrong, so that should also be checked out.”
But just how common are cataracts in children?
One of the most recent studies is now 20 years old. It estimated there were about 2.2 cases of cataracts in children per 10,000 births.
Globally, according to the National Library of Medicine, it’s estimated 2000,000 children worldwide were blind due to cataracts, and that 20,000 to 40,000 children are born each year with a congenital cataract.
Prictor hopes to get the message out because there were several misconceptions about children’s eyes, including that eye issues are reserved for older people.
“Vigilance about our kids’ eyes is really important,” she said.
“I mean, you go to have other kinds of health checks at an early age, but people often don’t think about getting their child’s eyes checked until school age.
“And so some things do get missed.”