Objectives: To determine and compare the incidence of severe, vision-threatening retinopathy of prematurity (ROP) in black and white low-birth-weight infants.
Design: Prospective cohort study.
Setting: Seventy neonatal intensive care units in 23 US participating centers in the Multicenter Trial of Cryotherapy for Retinopathy of Prematurity.
Patients: A total of 4099 premature infants weighing less than 1251 g at birth were enrolled to evaluate the natural history of ROP. This 'Natural History' cohort included 2158 white infants and 1584 black infants who were followed up prospectively according to a Natural History protocol.
Main outcome measures: Incidence and severity of acute ROP.
Results: While ROP occurred with similar frequency in all racial subgroups, severe ROP was less common in black infants. One hundred sixty (7.4%) of 2158 white infants reached threshold ROP (defined as at least 5 contiguous or 8 cumulative clock-hours of stage 3 retinopathy in zone 1 or zone 2 in the presence of "plus disease" [dilation and tortuosity of the posterior pole blood vessels]), but only 51 (3.2%) of 1584 black infants progressed to threshold ROP. Using multiple logistic regression analysis, race emerged as a highly significant factor (P < .001) in the development of threshold disease, even when birth weight, gestational age status at delivery, sex, multiple births, and transport status were considered.
Conclusions: Severe, vision-threatening ROP occurs with greater frequency in low-birth-weight white infants than in low-birth-weight black infants who are seemingly at equivalent risk. The reason for this disparity is unknown. We speculate that differences in retinal pigmentation may confer relative protection against free radical-mediated phototoxic injury in black infants.