Rohit Varma, MD

Rohit Varma, MD

Back when his son was in elementary school, Rohit Varma was asked to meet with the boy’s teacher. The teacher had a concern: Varma’s son was often distracted and had to be moved to the front of the class. It turns out that he couldn’t see the board clearly.

Even as an ophthalmologist, Varma hadn’t appreciated the enormous need for childhood eye exams.

“Suddenly I wondered how people not related to an ophthalmologist would get the care they needed,” says Varma, director of the USC Roski Eye Institute and chair of ophthalmology and dean at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. After some research, he found that there was little information available on pediatric eye disease, so he set out to start the Multi-Ethnic Pediatric Eye Disease Study. The 2003–2011 study focused on eye health in thousands of Los Angeles children from 6 months to 6 years of age.

It turned up some troubling findings: For one, nearly 90 percent of kids who needed eye care had never been examined by an eye doctor. “Whether they needed eyeglasses or surgery, they hadn’t been seen and treated,” Varma says. The study also found that a large proportion of kids, especially African-American and Asian-American children, are nearsighted.

Globally, the incidence of nearsightedness has skyrocketed over the past generation. Kids need outdoor activities to keep young eyes healthy, he says. “Studies have shown that close-up indoor activities, especially with smartphones and tablets, make it more likely that they will get progressively more nearsighted.”

The study, which generated more than 20 published research papers, found that mothers’ cigarette smoking during pregnancy gives rise to greater eye problems among children as well. It also found that Latino children are much more likely to have astigmatism—problems with how the eye focuses light— than other ethnic groups.

Varma says that the USC Roski Eye Institute will continue helping underserved groups gain access to eye care: “We are always looking to continue our work in vulnerable communities.”

By Katharine Gammon