Myopia, sports injuries and developmental issues among ‘indirect’ impacts of COVID-19

Spyros Papadatos enjoys getting back to doing what he loves.

The Sydney teenager joined his local surf lifesaving club three years ago, before COVID-19 hit.

Since then, several lockdowns have prevented him from swimming as often as he would have liked.

And they also had an unexpected impact.

“Now I have to wear sunglasses on the beach because I can’t see as well,” he said.

“If you want to help monitor people [on patrol]you need to be able to see if they have any issues.

“If you can’t see, it’s kind of hard to do it.”

When Spyros returned to school after the last lockdown, he noticed that his vision wasn’t as good as it used to be.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

COVID-19 lockdowns and remote learning have resulted in a documented increase in mental health issues.

But there are other physical health impacts – like nearsightedness or nearsightedness – that are just beginning.

Optometry Australia says its members are reporting more children being diagnosed with nearsightedness and worsening vision in some children who are already nearsighted.

This confirms international research which found, in a cohort of more than 100,000 children, the rate of myopia had more than doubled since the start of the pandemic.

Spyros was first diagnosed with mild myopia when he was nine years old.

When he returned to class after the closings, his vision loss was glaring.

“I was sitting in the back of the room and I just couldn’t see like I used to,” he said.

Increased time spent indoors leading to vision problems and injuries

Syros carries a large yellow surf rescue longboard on the beach.
Spyros Papadatos now wears prescription sunglasses at the beach.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

According to Spyros optometrist Kay Koutzas, he is just one of many children and teenagers who have experienced deterioration in vision over the past two years.

“We certainly saw an increase in the number of children with myopia and progression of myopia,” she said.

“The combination of increased time indoors, along with long periods of work with few breaks, really drove this spike, as it puts a lot of stress on the eyes.

“This stress leads to the elongation of the eyeball. The result of this, then, is having blurred vision in distance myopia.”

Ms Koutzas says eye tests can detect early signs of myopia.

“A third of Australian children have never had an exam. And that’s really concerning.”

She says getting outdoors often and taking regular breaks from screens is also essential to help reduce the risk of developing the condition.

Muscle injuries also on the rise

Physiotherapists have also noticed an increase in injuries among children and teens returning to exercise after lockdowns.

“We had a lot more presentations of neck pain, back pain and even joint problems and headaches,” said Paul Visentini, a Melbourne-based sports physiotherapist.

Teenage girl Harriet pictured outdoors in a leafy park, smiling at the camera and holding a football under her arm.
Harriet Hudson suffered a few injuries when she returned to the sport after the shutdowns.(ABC News: Patrick Stone)

One of his clients, teenager Harriet Hudson, tried to stay active during Melbourne’s extended lockdowns. But even she got injured when she started participating in team sports again.

“I missed a bit of sport because of [a knee injury],” she says.

“Then I suffered another quad injury, which really put off my comeback even more.

“It was quite frustrating to see everyone on the pitch as I sat in bed for the last two months and then had to sit on the bench again watching everyone play.”

Mr Visentini said his clinic had seen a “huge spike” in injuries after each lockdown, as children returned to sport after a long period of inactivity.

But he said most children would make a full recovery.

‘Interesting trends’ in baby development in NSW and Victoria

Twin babies Mia and Ava lying on a white sheet with two large toy bunnies and a small marker saying "six months".
Twin babies Mia and Ava were born during a COVID-19 lockdown in 2021.(Provided: Rima Rattray)

It is still unclear how the pandemic has affected our youngest children.

Researchers from the University of Western Sydney followed Australian babies born during the pandemic to find out what the impact has been on their development.

Lead researcher Hannah Dahlen says the longitudinal study involves about 6,000 families from across the country.

“We look at things like fine motor skills, more gross motor skills, how a baby communicates, interacts with how easily they settle down, how they take things in with their fingers, for example, their temperament,” said said Professor Dahlen.

Hannah Dahlen sits and smiles at the camera, in front of a shelf full of books and photos.
Researcher Hannah Dahlen says studying children born during the pandemic highlighted the importance of postnatal care.(ABC News: Aaron Hollett)

Early findings suggest that some six-month-olds born in states with lockdowns and high rates of COVID-19 were slightly delayed in reaching their developmental milestones.

“In New South Wales and Victoria we are seeing some interesting trends in baby outcomes,” she said.

“At the moment, it looks like the prolonged stress is having some impact.”

Prof Dahlen said it was important to document the impact of the pandemic on Australian babies so the trajectory could be changed for those struggling.

And for babies who are overdue, there is promising news. Professor Dahlen says that while some studies abroad show babies with developmental delays at six months, they can often catch up to their peers by the time they are one year old.

“Six months is very early. You can see things at six months, as some international studies have done, that are no longer apparent at 12 months,” she said.

The study also examines the mother’s stress level and its impact on the development of her baby.

Professor Dahlen says how the mother interacts with her baby during these first weeks and months of life is key.

“It’s when language is formed, it’s when all of our social landmarks and understandings are formed. Faces are really, really important. Words are really important,” she said.

“So the tone of a mother’s voice, the amount of words spoken by the mother, the interaction, the joy, the connection with that mother are going to be potentially shaped if that mother is distressed and isolated.”

Twin babies Mia and Ava wearing golden party hats shaped like crowns, sitting in front of a large cake topped with the word "A".
While being a new mother during the lockdowns was tough, Rima was pretty relaxed about her babies’ development.(Provided: Rima Rattray)

Rima Rattray, 34, gave birth to her twin daughters during an instant lockdown in Melbourne in February 2021.

Her daughters Mia and Ava were born four weeks premature and subsequent closures meant she had little interstate family support.

“Throughout the year, I haven’t received any help,” she said.

“I didn’t have a chance to say, ‘Would you mind coming over so I could take a nap or take a shower or a long shower? It was really difficult.”

Sometimes she worried that they didn’t have enough interaction with others, but overall she was relaxed about their development in the first year.

“A lot of moms compare, ‘This baby is crawling, my baby isn’t crawling’ – we were lucky we didn’t have time to compare,” she said.

Rima is confident that being born during the pandemic will not affect the development of her babies in the future.

Still, experts say it’s important that the indirect health issues for children that have arisen from the pandemic remain on the agenda.

“Let’s learn the lessons of this pandemic and not waste them,” Professor Dahlen said.

“Let’s learn what worked and what didn’t and take them into the future. This is unlikely to be our last pandemic.”

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