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An Eye on Myopia: Unravelling the Rising Prevalence in Europe

Myopia, colloquially known as near-sightedness, is the most common refractive error worldwide. In essence, it is a vision condition in which people can see close objects clearly, but objects farther away appear blurry. The main form of myopia is axial myopia, where essentially the eyeball grows too long.

In the past, myopia was simply considered a 'refractive error' that would be corrected with glasses, contact lenses or refractive surgery. However, there are a great many sight-threatening secondary conditions linked to myopia and it is now the leading cause of new blindness registrations in Japan (in one eye - monocular).

An Eye on Myopia: Unravelling the Rising Prevalence in Europe
An Eye on Myopia: Unravelling the Rising Prevalence in Europe

Recent studies have reported a steady increase in myopia prevalence across Europe, a phenomenon that demands our attention and investigation. This blog post will discuss the current rising levels of myopia across Europe, its potential causes, implications, and possible mitigations.

The Rising Tide of Myopia Over the past few decades, the prevalence of myopia has seen a remarkable increase globally, with Europe experiencing a significant surge. As per a study published in 2020 in the British Journal of Ophthalmology, it is estimated that nearly half of the young adult population in Europe is myopic [1]. This upsurge in myopia is now a significant public health concern due to the risks of potential severe vision impairment.

Moreover, the progression towards high myopia, a more severe form of near-sightedness, is also witnessing an alarming rise. The European Eye Epidemiology (E3) Consortium has forecast that by 2050, almost 10% of adults in Europe could develop high myopia, a condition that can lead to serious ocular complications like retinal detachment, myopic macular degeneration, glaucoma, and cataract. Some of these complications can lead to severe sight impairment (blindness).

Probing the Potential Causes Scientists have long speculated about the various factors driving the increase in myopia. They generally categorize these into two broad groups: genetic and environmental.

Myopia indeed has a genetic component. Research has identified over 150 genes associated with the condition, and children with myopic parents are more likely to develop the condition. However, the recent sharp increase in myopia prevalence cannot be explained solely by genetics, driving researchers to investigate the role of environmental factors. More recently, the nurture versus nature argument in myopia has certainly favoured nurture-based causes, i.e., environmental and lifestyle factors.

Among these environmental factors, two have gained notable attention: limited outdoor exposure and increased near-work activities, like reading and screen time. The increase in screen time due to digital technology is suspected to play a significant role in the myopia surge. The pandemic lockdowns across Europe, with schools switching to online classes and adults working from home, have exacerbated the situation. More recent evidence also points to very high levels of contrast leading to eyeball stretching (axial growth) and this is heavily linked to screen time as well.

Young girl being fitted with glasses at optometrist

The Implications and Possible Solutions The rising prevalence of myopia in Europe not only leads to a significant health burden but also has economic implications. The cost of vision correction, including glasses, contact lenses, and refractive surgery, is substantial. Furthermore, severe myopia-related complications can lead to visual impairment and blindness, substantially impacting the quality of life and affecting the economy significantly.

To counteract the myopia epidemic, we must first understand the environmental factors contributing to its rise. Encouraging children to spend more time outdoors and limiting screen time are initial steps. Furthermore, we need to raise awareness about the importance of regular eye examinations, especially in children, to detect and manage myopia at an early stage.

In the long run, research into genetic and environmental contributors to myopia, as well as the development of effective interventions, is crucial. The burgeoning field of genetic research offers hope, with recent studies exploring gene therapy as a potential treatment for myopia.

While the rising prevalence of myopia across Europe is a challenge, it also presents an opportunity. By understanding the causes and effects of this trend, we can work towards devising effective strategies to mitigate its impact and safeguard vision health for future generations. As with any public health issue, a concerted effort involving researchers, healthcare professionals, policymakers, and the public is key to turning the tide against the myopia surge.

The biggest issue at present appears to be public education and awareness of myopia and its associated risks. If you believe you know someone at risk of myopia or whom you know has the condition already, please tell them about this website.

If you're a parent whose child has been diagnosed with myopia or if they are struggling with their distance vision, we hope you found MyopiaFocus helpful. Please join our community or sign our petition to get the government and NHS to recognise myopia as an ocular disease/severe ocular condition and fund myopia management for children.

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