There's an Outbreak of a Rare Eye Infection. Here's How to Protect Yourself If You Wear Contacts

Researchers have found a threefold increase in a rare eye infection in the UK that usually affects contact lens wearers–and it’s possible it could have been prevented entirely.

The infection, called Acanthamoeba keratitis, is rare. Looking at data collected from Moorfields Eye Hospital in London, the researchers found just eight to 10 annual cases of AK from 2000 to 2003 and 16 to 20 cases from 2004 to 2009. The current outbreak seems to have started from 2010 to 2011, the researchers write. By 2013 it had peaked at 65 yearly cases–three times higher than just a few years earlier.

In the U.S., only about one or two people per every million contact wearers get AK, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Almost all cases of AK–around 85%, the CDC estimates–occur in people who wear contacts, but it can affect people who don’t, too.

AK is caused by a protozoan–a single-celled microorganism, as you might recall from science class–in the Acanthamoeba species. When Acanthamoeba gets into an eye–often through poor hand or contact lens hygiene–it can infect the cornea, the clear layer on the front of the eyeball. AK infections can cause pain, a feeling like something’s in your eye, teariness, redness, and even lead to permanent vision changes or blindness.

Since those symptoms can be signs of other corneal infections as well, people with AK are sometimes misdiagnosed, according to the CDC. But early diagnosis is key because it leads to prompt treatment–and AK is notoriously tricky to treat. Sometimes resistant to medication, treatment can often last six months to a year, according to the Mayo Clinic. Severe cases can result in corneal transplants and blindness.

Unfortunately for many AK sufferers, their cases could have been prevented. “Between 80 and 90% of AK cases are potentially avoidable if effective disinfection systems are used, good [contact lens] hygiene practice followed, and exposure to water while using lenses is avoided,” the study authors write. People with AK in their research were guilty of not just bad contact washing habits, but also swimming or bathing with contacts in, a known contacts no-no.

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However, that’s good news for any contact wearers feeling particularly worried at the moment: You can take your eye health into your own hands. “People who wear reusable contact lenses need to make sure they thoroughly wash and dry their hands before handling contact lenses, and avoid wearing them while swimming, face washing, or bathing,” lead study author John K. G. Dart, a consultant ophthalmologist at Moorfields Eye Hospital, said in a statement.

“Daily disposable lenses, which eliminate the need for contact lens cases or solutions, may be safer, and we are currently analyzing our data to establish the risk factors for these,” Dart continued. The current outbreak, the researchers write, is probably due to a mix of these and more factors, but spreading (even more) awareness of the importance of contact lens hygiene can only help.

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