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Experts investigate link between eye fungus, contact lenses

May 2, 2006 | South Florida Sun-Sentinel

The number of eye fungus cases and lawsuits grows larger in South Florida and nationwide, as federal health officials and eye experts try to figure out what's causing the infections among wearers of soft contact lenses.

Eye specialists who gathered Tuesday at an ophthalmology convention in Fort Lauderdale said they hope the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention soon will decide if there's a connection between the rare fungus and Bausch and Lomb lens-cleaning solutions used by virtually all of the early victims.

At least 191 lens-wearers in 29 states including more than 50 in Florida are confirmed or suspected to have been stricken by the fusarium fungus, the CDC reported Tuesday.

"Most people expect the (final) number will be somewhat higher," said Dr. Art Epstein, chairman of the American Optometric Association's contact lens and cornea section. "There is concern that we haven't come to a resolution as yet as to the cause. We're not sure what to tell patients."

The CDC said that of 56 confirmed fungus victims who wore soft lenses, 54 used Bausch and Lomb ReNu cleaning solutions, including 32 using ReNu with MoistureLoc. The company pulled that product from the market in April.

Also Tuesday, attorneys in West Palm Beach, Fla., filed two lawsuits in Palm Beach County circuit court against Bausch and Lomb, contending that the MoistureLoc wash caused the eye-damaging fungus. A suit seeking class-action status was filed in Miami against the company 10 days ago.

One of the suits asserted that a Lake Placid, Fla., grandmother had to have her left eye removed because the fungus damaged it in July 2005. She had been using ReNu wash for about five months.

"They can't give me my eye back," Zoe Wade, 69, said at a news conference Tuesday. "I just want other people to know what can happen. The pain was like my head was going to come off."

Wade and her attorneys questioned why Bausch and Lomb did not pull the ReNu product from U.S. markets in February at the same time it did so in the Far East, where a cluster of fungus cases had appeared.

The federal Food and Drug Administration issued a warning letter in 2002 to the company's plant in Greenville, S.C., where the solutions are made, after finding weak testing and paint chips in rooms that were supposed to be sanitary.

Bausch and Lomb says the MoistureLoc product did not come out until 2004 and that there's no proof that its solutions have any connection to the fungus. Company officials could not be contacted with calls to the headquarters in Rochester, N.Y. In the past, Bausch and Lomb has declined to comment on lawsuits about the fungus.

The CDC will not likely issue its findings on the cause of the fungus for several weeks, agency spokeswoman Christine Pearson said.

"Many of the cases are still under investigation," she said.

At least one research paper at the convention makes a case that chemical disinfectants used in lens solutions may damage the cornea, the eye's clear covering giving the fungus the opening it needs to invade the eye.

"Under certain circumstances, with certain issues, this might be more of an issue than we thought," Epstein said.

The fungus is common in tropical areas like South Florida, but rarely affected soft lens users until the past six months. The infection can cause clouded vision and blindness. Symptoms include pain redness, discharge and sensitivity to light. One victim was a girl, 10, whose eye became almost white within a day after the infection started, said her mother, Suzanne Partenza.

"I had never seen anything like this in my life," Partenza said. "It was a nightmare."

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