Retinopathy of prematurity (ROP) is an eye disease that can occur among babies who are born early or those born with a low birth weight.
The NHS routinely screens these babies for the condition, which affects blood vessels in the retina, creating damaging scar tissue and causing blindness.
Traditionally the condition is treated with laser eye surgery but some babies are too unwell or fragile to have the treatment.
Now the NHS is offering new “life-changing” drug ranibizumab to babies with ROP across England who are unable to receive traditional treatment.
Around 20 babies a year will benefit, it is estimated.
The drug is already routinely used in adults with wet age-related macular degeneration.
It works by temporarily stopping the action of a growth protein called vascular endothelial growth factor, which reduces or reverses the growth of the abnormal blood vessels.
NHS chief executive Amanda Pritchard said: “The impacts of vision loss can be absolutely devastating, particularly for children and young people, so it’s fantastic that this treatment will now give families across the country another life-changing option to help save their child’s precious sight.
“The national roll-out of this lifeline treatment for babies who are too poorly to undergo laser therapy is a vital step forward in preventing avoidable vision loss, and as we prepare to mark our 75th anniversary this is another example of how the NHS continues to ensure that the latest and most effective treatments are available for everyone who needs them.”
One mother described how “lucky” her daughter was to have the treatment. Millie Swan, from Surrey, was born prematurely at 23 weeks.
She spent five months in hospital and developed retinopathy of prematurity.
When she was three months old the condition became so severe in her left eye that she needed urgent treatment to save her sight.
Millie’s mother Natalie said: “She was meant to have laser treatment, which is the usual way to treat this condition, but when they gave her the sedative to prepare her for the procedure she didn’t tolerate it at all so they couldn’t start the procedure.
“At this point we thought she would end up blind in her left eye but we were lucky enough to get offered this new treatment, which was an injection into the eye.
“Millie will be three years old in July and her eyesight is now normal and she enjoys looking at the pictures in her books and aeroplanes in the sky.
“We feel so lucky that she got to have this procedure and avoided almost certain blindness in that eye – and now other families will be able to benefit from it too.”