Because retinoblastoma is easily detectable by shining a light into a child's eye—often as a "cat's eye" reflection revealed through flash photography—a number of countries, particularly resource-poor countries where the disease is more prevalent, have initiated education and screening programs, thinking that catching the disease early would lead to improved outcomes. This study is the first to follow a cohort of children with the disease over time and to look at the unilateral (one eye) and bilateral (two eyes) forms of the disease separately.
"Our study suggests that screening children for retinoblastoma may not improve outcomes for the majority of patients, particularly for the more common form of the disease affecting one eye," says senior author Manuela A. Orjuela, MD, ScM, assistant professor of pediatrics and environmental health sciences at Columbia University Medical Center. "By the time the tumor is visible in the child's eye, vision is infrequently salvageable, and removal of the eye is usually necessary to prevent spread of the disease."
The research team followed 179 children with retinoblastoma in Mexico City and interviewed their parents about symptoms and socio-demographic factors. Physicians at the Hospital Infantil de México assessed disease stage using several validated methods. The researchers found that for unilateral disease, the lag-time between when parents first noticed the disease and when the children were diagnosed had no bearing on disease stage or survival. In the rarer bilateral disease, a longer lag-time was strongly associated with a more advanced stage and worse survival, but it did not predict the extent of disease involvement in the more affected eye. Lag-times averaged seven and eight months for unilateral and bilateral disease, respectively.