updated 12/9/2003 2:28:27 PM ET 2003-12-09T19:28:27

Early treatment for an eye disease common in premature babies can help spare them from going blind or suffering poor vision, a government study found.

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An estimated 14,000 to 16,000 premature infants nationwide are born each year with the condition, called retinopathy of prematurity, and hundreds of them go blind. The disease involves damage to blood vessels in the retina.

Since the problem sometimes goes away on its own, standard practice has been to start treatment — laser therapy or freezing to stop blood vessel growth — only in babies whose condition has gotten significantly worse.

The study involved 401 infants who were born an average of about three months early and weighed less than 2.75 pounds at birth.

In each infant, researchers treated one eye conventionally — by simply watching the baby or by administering laser therapy if the disease got substantially worse — and gave laser therapy to the other eye about two weeks earlier, at about nine weeks after birth.

Nearly 20 percent of conventionally treated eyes had poor vision or were blind when the babies were tested at around age 1, compared with just under 15 percent of the early treatment group.

"This is a great step forward in research to treat blinding eye diseases,” said Dr. Elias Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health.

The NIH’s National Eye Institute sponsored the study, which appears in December’s Archives of Ophthalmology, published Monday.

The youngsters will be given vision tests at age 6 that will show for certain how well the early treatment worked, said Robert Hardy, a study co-author and public health professor at University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston.

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