Contact-Lens Fungus Troubles Users, Government

The government is investigating dozens of eye infections among contact lens wearers, apparently caused by a fungus. The fungus is called Fusarium and investigators say a particular brand of contact-lens solution could be the cause.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

People who wear soft contact lenses have something new to worry about, a fungus. Federal health officials are investigating more than 100 eye infections apparently caused by the fungus known as Fusarium. Many of the infections occurred in people using a particular brand of contact lens solution, but as NPR's Jon Hamilton reports, health experts still aren't sure why the fungus is spreading.

JON HAMILTON reporting:

Fusarium infections are still pretty rare when you consider that 30 million people in the U.S. wear soft contact lenses. Even so, Dr. Eduardo Alfonso of the Bascom PalmerEye Institute at the University of Miami says he understands why people are worried.

Dr. EDUARDO ALFONSO (Bascom PalmerEye Institute): The concern is that if you do get the infection there's a good likelihood that you are going to have some permanent loss of vision in the eye.

HAMILTON: And you may need a corneal transplant. Alfonso probably knows as much as anybody about Fusarium infections. His institution has treated about 30 patients so far. The fungus appears to be most common among people using the Bausch and Lomb solution called ReNu with MoistureLoc. The company has stopped shipping it and many drugstores have already pulled ReNu with MoistureLoc off the shelves. But Alfonso says there's no evidence the contact lens solution itself is the source of any fungus. He knows this because he's asked infected patients to bring in their contact lens supplies for inspection.

Dr. ALFONSO: The contact lens and the contact lens case have been contaminated but the contact lens solution has not, so we know that the solution, while it's in the bottle, is not what is contaminated.

HAMILTON: That hasn't kept Bausch and Lomb stock from getting hammered in the last couple of days. Joanne Wuensch is an analyst who follows Bausch and Lomb for Harris Nesbitt and she wears soft contact lenses.

Ms. JOANNE WUENSCH (Analyst): My mother called me this morning to make sure I wasn't using ReNu MoistureLoc.

HAMILTON: She uses another brand. Wuensch says Bausch and Lomb sells about 45 million dollars worth of ReNu products each year. But she says the fungus problem could cause what she calls collateral damage.

Ms. WUENSCH: What happens to other Bausch and Lomb products? What happens to the Bausch and Lomb brand? What happens to the ReNu brand name?

HAMILTON: The answer probably depends on what's actually causing the increase in fungal infections. One possibility is that the lens solution is affecting the surface of the eye in a way that makes it more vulnerable to infections. Amy Rossman says that's a scary thought. Rossman works at the National Fungus Collections in Beltsville, Maryland. She says the eye offers an ideal environment for fungi to grow.

Dr. AMY ROSSMAN (National Fungus Collection): Fungi like wet places, just like the indoor air fungus is in wet places in houses, and a human eyeball is wet, it's aerobic.

HAMILTON: And all a fungus needs then is something to eat. Rossman says that might come from the plastic used to make contact lenses. She says Fusarium like to eat plastic. It may take a while to figure out what's causing the outbreak. Dr. Christine Sindt directs the contact lens service at the University of Iowa, which has treated three patients with Fusarium infections in the past few months. At least two used ReNu lens solution. Sindt says contact lens wearers can protect themselves by paying attention to hygiene.

Dr. CHRISTINE SINDT (University of Iowa): Washing their hands, cleaning their case, replacing their contact lenses as prescribed. Changing their solutions every day, every time they wear their contact lenses. That can really minimize any risks.

HAMILTON: She says these measures are especially important in warm climates where fungal infections are most common.

Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

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