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A British journalist has put himself in the news after becoming blind in one eye because of a parasite — and now, he’s warning people to never shower with contact lenses in.
Nick Humphreys, 29, wrote a first-person account in the Shropshire Star about the horrific infection he acquired in early 2018. He first felt dryness in his right eye but ended up in hospital after the pain became too intense to tolerate.
He was eventually diagnosed with Acanthamoeba keratitis (AK), a rare but serious infection of the cornea (the outer covering of the eye) that can result in permanent visual impairment or blindness. It’s caused by a microscopic amoeba called Acanthamoeba, a single-cell organism that’s found in water, soil and air.
Despite receiving a diagnosis, Humphreys’s ordeal was just beginning: after using various types of eye drops, some of which had to be applied hourly 24/7, for weeks, he wound up housebound for six months.
“I couldn’t read a page of a newspaper without being in excruciating pain, light sensitivity was so bad I had to keep the curtains drawn at all times,” Humphreys explains. “To hammer home the message, women on an online support group who’ve had this condition have said the pain is a million times worse than childbirth. It hurt!”
He’s already had two operations on his eye and will have a full corneal transplant and cataract surgery next month. His eye appearing grey and cloudy, Humphreys has also experienced depression and anxiety.
“Working with the charity Fight for Sight to raise awareness about the danger of using contact lenses while showering or swimming has helped,” he writes.
Although more common in people who wear contact lenses, anyone can develop AK — and not just from showering. The amoeba can be acquired from swimming (in lakes, oceans, rivers, and pools), using hot tubs, and gardening. Improper use of and care for contact lenses can also lead to infection.
The amoeba can also be spread to the eyes through cuts or skin wounds or by being inhaled into the lungs.
“Acanthamoeba is a ubiquitous organism; it’s found all over the place, particularly in stagnant water,” says Dr. Lyndon Jones, professor at the School of Optometry and Vision Science, University Research Chair, and director of the Centre for Ocular Research & Education (CORE) at the University of Waterloo. “The number of patients who get Acanthamoeba keratitis is extraordinarily small…. “Often, very sadly, if you do contract AK, the end result is usually not very good. It can result in a permanent reduction in quality of vision.”
Jones emphasizes that using contact lenses is extremely safe. The most common cause of infection generally is sleeping with them in; poor compliance is another. That means things like not using the appropriate lens solution, not cleaning and replacing lens cases regularly, and not washing your hands before handling lenses. He says the safest type of lenses are daily disposable ones.
However, what makes AK so potentially serious, Jones says, is that it’s difficult to diagnose in early stages. Unlike bacterial keratitis, which progresses quickly and has a very specific appearance, Acanthamoeba keratitis takes a long time to produce visible effects.
“AK is often misdiagnosed as something else and treated as something else,” Jones says. “When the patient doesn’t recover; the Acanthamoeba gets more and more of a hold on infecting the eye.”
Diagnosis is achieved through laboratory testing or sophisticated imaging that many clinicians don’t have access to, meaning people would need to be referred to a specialist eye centre. “By the time that’s done, the infection has usually got quite a hold, and that makes it very difficult to treat,” Jones says. “There’s no one, magic drop. If someone gets bacterial keratitis, it responds quickly to a particular antibiotic. With AK, you end up having to treat a patient with a concoction of drugs, and every clinician might use different ones. There’s no single approved treatment.
“AK is very difficult to get, very difficult to diagnose, and very difficult to treat,” he adds. “That’s why you hear such horror stories. It’s not because it’s actually that common but because it ends up with much more devastating results.”
A Canadian man is experiencing his own nightmare with AK.
Tottenham, Ont.’s Jon Volpe has gone public with his vision loss due to the parasite. The 32-year-old father of one believes he contracted the infection in January 2018 while wearing contact lenses in the shower at home or at the hockey rink.
Not only has Volpe been in immense pain, but he’s also had to pay about $11,000 out of his own pocket so far for a drug called Mitlefosine, which is unavailable in Canada. He may be having a corneal transplant next year.
There are several ways to reduce the risk of ending up with AK.
Proper storage, handling, and use of contact lenses and solutions are crucial, Jones says. Avoid touching your eyes or lenses after gardening or working with the land, and scrub hands well afterward.
“Avoid exposure to water,” Jones says. “That means thing like not swimming in contact lenses, not showering in them, and ideally not using them when in the hot tub.”
People should seek medical attention if they have eye pain or redness, blurred or decreased vision, sensitivity to light, sensation of something in the eye, or excessive tearing.