British (and other nationalities’) media recently reported on an 18-year-old British girl, Jessica Greaney, who suffered an attack by an eye parasite.
The parasite entered her eye by way of her contact, which she had cleansed in contaminated water.
Her story can be read in-depth on British news media The Daily Mail (note: some imagery in the article might be unpleasant to some readers!).
Can this affect divers using contact lenses?
As scuba divers, we spend a lot of our time in water, and while we do wear dive masks which theoretically should protect our eyes, these do leak or fall off sometimes.
And many divers also wear contacts. What if you drop one and replace it? Could we become infected as well?
Here's more about Diving With Contact Lenses
Let’s look at the real life case
First up, let’s take a look at what happened to poor Ms. Greaney.
The specific parasite she was infected with was of the type Acanthamoeba Keratitis, and is a particularly nasty one.
It often attacks contact lens wearers, when they rinse their lenses in tap water or wear them in the shower.
The parasite lives in water, and is trapped between the eyeball and the lens, leading it to burrow into the eyeball and start eating from the inside out.
Loss of eyesight is a definite risk, but in rare cases, the parasite has been known to enter the spinal cord (via the optical nerve) which can lead to death.
Ms. Greaney is believed to have attracted the parasite when she stored her contacts near the sink, and water was accidentally splashed on them.
Here's a short video report.
Are Divers at Risk?
So, washing your contacts in tap water is a bad idea. But are divers at risk? While Acanthamoeba Keratitis is predominantly found in water with extensive bacteria growth, it is also a normal occurring microbe in most water sources, and can be found in non-contaminated water.
Many people, like ms. Greaney, are infected by perfectly healthy tap water. And the parasite can live just fine in fresh and saltwater alike.
So the short answer to the question is, yes, divers are indeed at risk.
How big is the risk for divers?
How big is that risk, though? In the UK, the government health officials state that the number of cases is around 200 a year (in a country with a population of 64 million), and in the US, the CDC (lacking hard numbers) estimate that some 30 to 60 people are infected each year.
The majority of these cases are contact lens wearers.
What can divers do to avoid the parasite
So what can we do to reduce our risk?
First of all, realize that the risk of infection is very small.
If you wear contact lenses, it is generally recommended that you replace them according to the package description and only rinse and store them in purpose-made contact lens liquid.
Here are 11 Tips For Safe Diving
Contact lens wearers should avoid wearing contact lenses while showering and doing water sports such as swimming or, yes, scuba diving. The problem is that the lenses make a perfect trap for the parasite, and if it can’t get away, it might start digging.
So if you wear contacts, consider a prescription-glass dive mask, rather than diving with your contacts on.
And if you do dive with your contacts, and you drop one, don’t replace it until it has been rinsed with either a sterile saline solution or your contact lens liquid.
Again, the risk of infection is small, but the consequences can be unpleasant, to say the least, and quite serious. So taking a few, small precautions might well be worth it.
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