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Thursday, 24 June, 1999, 14:44 GMT 15:44 UK
Opticians halt lens re-use
Seac says the move is a "precautionary measure"
Opticians have been advised to stop using multi-use trial contact lenses because of fears they could transmit new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (nvCJD).

The Federation of Ophthalmic and Dispensing Opticians (FODO) has issued guidance to its members telling them to stop using test lenses on more than one person immediately.

The lenses are used in the fitting of hard lenses, gas-permeable lenses and some soft types.

The Department of Health issued a warning after speaking to scientists on its Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (Seac).

The danger is posed because the eyes can carry material that will pass on the brain disease, and trial lenses are often used by many people.

Evidence so far

The committee's chairman Sir John Pattison described the government's action as a "precautionary measure" and said the risk of transmission was extremely small.

However, he confirmed that material capable of transmitting the disease was found in the eye.

"The eye is a very specialised organ in terms of its development - it's really an extension of the brain," Sir John told the BBC.

"You can find the agent of BSE at the back of the eye - the retina - and we know from classical CJD that you can transmit it from one patient to another by putting in a corneal graft.

"Contact lenses are likely to come into contact with the cornea, and it may be that they pick up cells that contain the transmissable agent."

He said there was no evidence that anyone had died of CJD as a result of wearing test contact lenses, and people should not be worried about their everyday contact lenses.

Much more study would be needed to determine if there was a real risk, but in the mean time it would be best practice for opticians to throw away test lenses after their first use, he said.

Government action confuses opticians

A Department of Health spokeswoman said: "Immediately acting on concerns about multiple-use trial contact lenses, Frank Dobson asked Seac to consider the issue at their meeting on 3 June."

The government has asked opticians to not to re-use lenses but will not develop a formal ban on the practice.

However, Bob Hughes, general secretary of FODO, said opticians had been confused by the government's approach.

He said: "We knew nothing about this until I saw a few lines from Frank Dobson in the middle of the night.

"We are concerned about the way the advice has been published.

Ian Hunter wants to reassure the public
"We would have liked to have seen the scientific evidence and have been warned that this order was going to be made so we could have advised our members.

"We are now seeking a meeting with the Department of Health so we can see the scientific evidence and discuss the situation."

Ian Hunter, of the Association of Optometrists, said: "It would have been nice to have had a little more warning about what was going to be said.

"Naturally we want to reassure the public, and our members, about the steps that have to be taken."

'Cosmetic lenses pose greater risk'

Richard Wilshin - director of the General Optical Council - said the main danger was not from opticians, but from cosmetic lenses.

These were often exchanged among nightclubbers at discos.

He said: "There's no regulation on their sale - they can be bought in hairdressers and beauty salons."

This would make it very difficult to control their use unless the law was changed, he said.

The BBC's Leon Hawthorne: "There is no proof that anyone has caught the disease"
Sir John Pattison: "We think it would be best practice to encourage opticians to use them as single use"
Director general of the optical council Richard Wilshin says a ban is likely
The BBC's Margaret Gilmore: "This is a precautionary measure"
BBC Environment Correspondent Margaret Gilmore explains the risk
Ian Hunter: The risk is minimal
See also:

21 May 99 | Health
CJD deaths could be on the rise
02 Jun 99 | Health
Expert says UK blood is safe
18 Aug 99 | Medical notes
Prion diseases
18 Aug 99 | BSE Inquiry
CJD: The threat to human health
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