Steroids raise ocular risk in premature babies

Steroid use to address one disorder of very low birthweight infants appears to exacerbate another

22 Aug 2016 by Olivia Wannan

Very premature babies who receive corticosteroids to boost their lung function are at a significantly higher risk of retinopathy than those who do not, a new study has found.

Low birthweight infants are already at risk of retinal damage, which scientists believe occurs as premature birth disrupts the normal development of the eye towards the end of a pregnancy.

About 60% of babies born weighing less than 1251 grams in the UK will develop retinopathy of prematurity (ROP), though typically most of these children will have the mild form of the disease and will recover without any treatment.

A study, published in the Journal of the American Association for Paediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus, analysed the data of 1472 babies with very low birthweights who were discharged from neonatal intensive care units between 1996 and 2013.

After correcting for other factors, the research found that the children who received steroids were 1.6 times more likely to have ROP and 1.7 times more likely to have the advanced form of the disorder, which can lead to permanent loss of vision.

Midland County Department of Public Health medical director, Dr Tammy Movsas, explained that the impact of steroid use could potentially be long-term, as ROP increases a person’s risk of developing other ocular disorders later in life.

She concluded that: “Clinicians need to use their best judgement to balance the positive effects from steroids on developing lungs with the potential negative effects on developing eyes in very premature infants.”

Image credit: Joseph Boomhower, US Navy

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