Wednesday, November 21, 2007
Medical Reports: Out of Sight
There is a tiny organism living in waters throughout South Florida, and it's causing a severe eye infection and sometimes even blindness. Doctors are warning cases are on the rise.
WSVN -- It lurks in lakes, swirls through pools, even runs through our pipes and tap water. It's a dangerous amoeba that calls Florida it's number one home.
Dr. Eduardo Alfonso: "We see in South Florida more of these infections than probably the rest of the country."
Maria Alvarez knows the blinding effects of this microscopic organism.
Maria Alvarez: "One day you come down, and you're blind. You go through all sorts of emotions."
Several years ago, she was diagnosed with acanthamoeba keratitis or AK.
It's a severe eye infection caused by an amoeba that gets into your eye through scratches or cuts on your cornea.
This organism actually starts eating away at the cornea.
Maria Alvarez: "Basically, you can relate it to a colony of ants that are just eating away."
AK usually strikes people who wear contacts. Doctors think that's because we often wash our hands before we put in our lenses. The amoeba is in the water and easily attaches itself to the lens, but it also infects people who don't wear contacts.
Joseph Shaw: "It was very scary, very scary, afraid I was going to lose my left eye."
Joseph Shaw was just diagnosed with AK eight weeks ago.
Joseph Shaw: "They said I had a very rare infection that came from some type of water that I was involved with."
AK used to be considered rare, but doctors say it's now becoming more common.
Dr. Eduardo Alfonso: "Here at Bascom Palmer we have been typically taking care of 10 to 15 of these infections in the past, and yet, in the last three or four years, we have seen an increase of 40 to 50 of these cases a year."
Doctors don't know why AK is on the rise, but one theory is the amoeba is becoming stronger and resistant to antibiotics and contact lens disinfectants.
In fact, several disinfectants have been recalled because another possibility: the quality of our tap water.
Dr. James Noth: "What has changed is the purification system, and the hygiene in the water is not as good as it used to be."
Doctors say everyone should be on the lookout for symptoms of AK: eye pain or redness, blurry vision, light sensitivity, excessive tearing or feeling like something is caught in the eye.
The best way to avoid this disease? Dry your hands thoroughly after washing your hands. Don't open your eyes in a pool or hot tub. If you wear contacts, be extra careful.
Dr. James Noth: "You shouldn't swim in contacts, shouldn't take showers in contacts, especially fresh water lakes."
Treating AK can be brutal. There is no FDA approved medication to treat it.
Dr. James Noth: "So we use [a chemical], which is a pool cleaner, to put as drops in the patient's eyes to kill this organism."
Just remembering the treatment caused Maria to break down. She had to put stinging drops in her eyes every few minutes, every hour of the day. Her eyes became so sensitive to light she rarely left the house and would spend most days in the dark.
Maria Alvarez: "I hid from the light all the time because that was a big source of your pain."
While the drops can kill the amoeba, most patients still end up needing a corneal transplant. Maria has already had one, and Joseph is set to have one in the coming months.
Jospeh: "I'm hoping it heals enough that they can go ahead with the transplant."
Maria: "What I am scared of is the corneal transplant is like any other transplant, your body can reject it."
A fear, that is never totally Out of Sight.