William Spadafora had tried reading glasses, distance glasses and bifocals. He had lost glasses, stepped on glasses, and dropped glasses off the side of a boat.
“I was fed up with glasses and I wanted to try something different, so that’s why I tried contacts,” said Spadafora, 58. “They worked for me for five or six years until I came down with the fungus.”
Say hello again to glasses.
Spadafora, of Malden, Mass., is among the dozens of contact lens wearers in the United States left groping for glasses thanks to blurred vision and pain from Fusarium keratitis, a nasty fungal infection. Health authorities say most of the victims in 17 states were using ReNu with MoistureLoc eye solution to cleanse their contacts.
The outbreak also has many of the nation’s 30 million soft contact wearers tossing out their ReNu-MoistureLoc bottles and turning to other products. Stores and optometrists are taking the solution off their shelves.
Optometrists around the country say they’re inundated with calls from patients asking what to do. Florida has the highest number of cases in the country, with more than 50 reported so far.
“What we’re saying is not to use the solution and if there’s any problem or they feel something going on to come and see the doctor,” said Sheila Narales, a receptionist for Dr. Marie Tartibi of Oviedo, an Orlando, Fla., suburb. “They’re concerned. We have a lot of patients calling about it.”
Spadafora describes the symptoms: “I felt pain, like somebody was pressing their finger against my eyeball.” He’s still plagued by a hazy film over his eyes.
The stock price for Bausch & Lomb, the maker of ReNu, has plummeted – even though not everyone is convinced the company’s product is the real culprit, including Dr. Harry Zink, president of the American Academy of Ophthalmology. Bottles of the solution have been tested by Bausch & Lomb and independent doctors and no contamination has been found.
Fusarium is commonly found in plant material and soil in tropical and subtropical regions. Without eye drop treatment, which can last two to three months, the infection can scar the cornea and blind its victims.
Zink called the outbreak “one of those things that happens in medicine, where you really need to get more data and more information.”
Still, Bausch & Lomb halted U.S. shipments of the product last week and major merchants, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., have pulled it from their shelves. Zink’s group sent members e-mails and faxes last week, telling them to warn their patients. The stock price for the Rochester, N.Y., company has fallen almost a third since word of the first infections – which turned up in Singapore – broke three weeks ago.
“We certainly know that retailers, eye doctors and consumers are really looking for definitive answers, and we just don’t have any at this time,” company spokeswoman Meg Graham said Tuesday. “Our effort is to try to get to the bottom of this as quickly as possible.”
Dr. Arthur Epstein, chairman of the American Optometric Association’s contact lens and cornea section, said soft contact wearers can protect themselves from Fusarium by washing their hands before handling their lenses.
And despite all the publicity, some contact wearers were still in the dark last week. Chad Borders, of Coral Springs, Fla., hadn’t heard about the fungus and was still using ReNu with MoistureLoc.
“That’s scary,” he said. “I’ve never had any eye problems or infections.”
Contact wearer Shelley Mogell, 49, said she’s been using a different Bausch & Lomb cleansing solution for about seven years and has never had an infection.
“The MoistureLoc must have something in it, a different ingredient,” said Mogell of Lake Worth, Fla. “Bausch & Lomb is a pretty reputable company. I will probably continue to use (their products).”
But after weeks of pain, William Spadafora isn’t taking any chances with a return to contacts.
Wearing an old pair of glasses he uses to see distances, he said, “I’m walking around half blind now.”
Associated Press writer Kelli Kennedy reported from Orlando, Fla., and Andrew Ryan reported from Boston.