Acanthamoeba keratitis (AK), a rare eye infection caused by the Acanthamoeba ameba found in tap water, affects a few dozen people in the US every year. In some cases, it can have devastating effects, like what Irenie Ekkeshis has experienced; She was blinded by AK in her right eye due to a contaminated contact lens.
The use of contact lenses causes about 85% of these infections, which can bring the disease to the eye after coming in contact with water containing the amoeba, a small single-celled animal. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are about one to 33 cases per million contact lens wearers in developed countries around the world.
Despite this fact, most of the 30 million people in the US who use contact lenses are unaware of the danger of contact lenses, as there is no warning regarding water that comes with the product.
When Ekkeshis contracted the infection in 2011, she initially thought her eye's tearing and sensitivity to light would go away within days. After getting an "excruciatingly painful" corneal scrape at Moorfield's Eye Hospital, doctors diagnosed her with AK. She told BBC News:
I was feeling very shocked and frightened, as by then I had lost the vision in my right eye. It was like looking through a foggy bathroom mirror. I could see colours and shapes but not much else.
She was surprised to learn the infection came from her contact lenses, as she didn't wear them in the shower or swimming. She then learned "that even washing your hands and not drying them properly before handling lenses can cause it," according to her interview with BBC.
Acanthamoeba invades the cornea, the transparent outer layer of the eye—and the most sensitive—so Ekkeshis was in "agony" that painkillers did not much help. After her eye did not respond to antiseptic eye drop treatment, she eventually had to quit her job. By the time when the infection and pain were finally under control months later, the amoeba had permanently scarred her eye.
In 2013, Ekkeshis had a corneal transplant to fix her blurred vision, only to have the infection move to the new transplant. A second transplant in 2014 was successful until a problem occurred with her retina (likely caused by inflammation from the AK), and she became completely blind in her right eye.
Contact lenses are breeding grounds for AK as "Acanthamoeba has a high affinity for contact lens surfaces" and contact lenses cause "minor corneal abrasions, which is the key initial step for Acanthamoeba infection." To avoid AK, the CDC recommends:
- Stick strictly to the doctor prescribed schedule to wear and replace lenses.
- Remove lenses before swimming or showering.
- Wash hands with soap and water, then thoroughly dry before handling contacts.
- Clean contact lenses according to manufacturer's guidelines, including using fresh cleaning or disinfecting solution each time lenses are cleaned and stored.
- Never using saline solution or rewetting drops to disinfect lenses.
- Rub and rinse the lenses after each use.
- Rinse storage cases with sterile contact solution and replace them once every three months.
Due to the severeness of her illness, Ekkeshis has taken it upon herself to create awareness for AK. Upon being told by the British Contact Lens Association that were "wasn't room" for a warning about water on the contact lens boxes, she designed a "No Water" graphic sticker herself. She distributes these to opticians so that they can stick in on contact lens boxes. She hopes one day she can get the graphic printed on the side of every box, in hopes that future generations will be better warned than she was.