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Glaucoma Can Affect Babies, Too

In U.S., one in 10,000 infants is born with the vision-robbing disease

WebMD News from HealthDay

By Amy Norton

HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, July 2, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- When Olivia Goree noticed something just "wasn't right" about her 6-week-old son's eyes, she trusted her instincts and took him to the doctor. What she never expected was the diagnosis: glaucoma.

"I was really surprised," recalled Goree, who said she had only ever heard of the vision-robbing disease affecting older adults.

And that's probably how most people think of glaucoma, since it's largely diagnosed in people older than 60. But rarely, the disease can strike infants and children.

Glaucoma refers to a group of eye diseases in which fluid builds up in the eye, creating pressure that damages the optic nerve and leads to vision loss.

In some cases, a baby will be born with glaucoma as part of a syndrome of birth defects, explained Dr. Robert Barnes, an ophthalmologist at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Ill., who treated Goree's son, Christian.

In other cases, an older child develops glaucoma because of trauma to the eye, use of steroid eye drops, or surgery for a different eye condition, such as cataracts.

Christian's glaucoma, however, was present soon after birth and had no apparent cause. That's known as primary congenital glaucoma, and it affects about one in 10,000 infants born in the United States, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

In a small percentage of babies with glaucoma, there's a family history of glaucoma at an early age, said Dr. Norman Medow, director of pediatric ophthalmology at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City.

Certain gene mutations have been linked to familial cases of congenital glaucoma, and children can be tested for them, Medow noted.

"But most often, it occurs as a sporadic case," he said. And in those cases, the underlying cause is unclear.

Barnes said Christian was lucky his mom noticed something amiss and acted on it. "Often, children with [primary glaucoma] are not picked up until they're about 6 months old," he said.

Quick action is essential, because the vision loss that comes with glaucoma is irreversible.

Goree said she became concerned when she noticed her newborn's eyes had a "hazy, bluish-gray color." A pediatrician initially told her to not to worry, but Goree decided to take him to Loyola. That's where ophthalmologist Dr. Cathleen Cronin diagnosed Christian with glaucoma.

Infant glaucoma "is a completely different entity than glaucoma in adults," said Dr. Tamiesha Frempong, a pediatric ophthalmologist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.

While the precise underlying cause is usually unknown, congenital glaucoma involves a developmental flaw in the structures that normally allow fluid to drain from the eye. That fluid buildup then stretches certain immature tissues in infants' eyes.

"The cornea gets so big, there can end up being 'breaks' in the back of the cornea," Frempong said. The cornea is the normally clear outer layer of the eye. In an infant with congenital glaucoma, it starts to take on a hazy appearance.

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