Hamilton doctor and McMaster developers improve eye care for Indigenous children in Ontario’s Far North

By Nathan Sager

Published on November 17, 2021 at 8:20 p.m.

A Hamilton doctor at McMaster Children’s Hospital is part of a partnership improving eye care for thousands of Indigenous children who live in Ontario’s Far North.

Dr. Kourosh Sabri, a pediatric ophthalmologist, has been traveling to the Far North to give eye exams to children for about six years. But only about 20 children can be given eye tests in a single visit, and some travel far south and miss a few days of school to have their eyes checked. Now, through a federally funded partnership with the Weeneebayko Area Health Authority called the Indigenous Children’s Eye Examination Program (ICEE), it is possible to have remote liaisons where children can get eye exams, be given glasses, and be monitored for eye problems.

Sabri notes that there is a direct correlation between visual health and the emotional and physical development of any child.

“Eye screening in children is of paramount importance,” says Dr. Sabri in an introductory video about the ICEE. “Children can have eye problems that may go unnoticed. They can grow up with poor vision in one or both eyes without anyone knowing.

“Up to 80% of a child’s development depends on good vision, that is, physical and emotional development.”

McMaster University software developers have created an interface that allows patients to virtually communicate with MCH physicians. Instead of reading an eye chart displayed on a wall in a dimly lit doctor’s office, the child reads on a large screen and types in letters and numbers.

“Using this software developed at McMaster, we have developed this personalized vision screening tool (where) we can connect remotely with children in these communities and perform a vision screening test,” adds Sabri.

The $1.7 million program is funded by Indigenous Services Canada under Jordan’s Principle, which aims to ensure First Nations children have the same access to public services as other children in Canada. It is one of the first programs of its kind to be offered to children in the James Bay region.

The Weeneebayko Area Health Authority says the children’s vision care partnership could benefit some 6,000 children. The health authority serves Weenusk, Fort Albany, Kashechewan, Attawapiskat, Moose Cree, and MoCreebec Eeyoud First Nations, as well as the town of Moosonee. Not having to travel overnight for an eye exam obviously means less disruption to a child’s routine.

“It is estimated that there are approximately 6,000 to 7,000 children living along the James Bay coast, who do not have access to vision screening in their communities and must travel far south and miss a few days school to obtain vision care services. says Lynne Innes, president and CEO of the Weeneebayko Area Health Authority.

A similar partnership, Eye Mac, was formed several years ago. The non-profit initiative involves eye care professionals from Hamilton, school boards and McMaster to provide free vision screening for schoolchildren. Since its launch, it has tested the eyes of more than 10,700 children. Almost a third, over 3,500, were found to have a vision problem.

Despite this, Sabri points out that less than 1 in 6 children in Canada have their eyesight tested before their sixth birthday. It is even rarer in sparsely populated areas like the Far North.

Sabri says there’s no reason a program like ICEE can’t work in other remote communities.

“Only 15.16% of children under the age of six get an eye exam – and that includes urban areas,” he says. “It is therefore very important for us to develop a national universal vision screening program for children, so that regular vision screenings are carried out and that any child with a vision problem is treated during these very trainers.”

“Our hope is that this can be replicated in other geographically remote and underserved areas of Canada,” he adds.

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