Contact lens scare `exaggerated'

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OPTICIANS YESTERDAY criticised the Government's handling of advice from scientists that people risked catching the human form of mad cow disease from re-used contact lenses.

Frank Dobson, the Secretary of State for Health, ordered an end to the multiple use of trial lenses to prevent further outbreaks of the new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease which has killed 41 people so far.

Hundreds of worried patients, unaware that their trial lenses had been used before, contacted their opticians yesterday alarmed that they could be at risk.

Bob Hughes of the Federation of Ophthalmic and Dispensing Opticians said his organisation was concerned about the way the advice hadbeen published.

"We would 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. Worried patients have been ringing their opticians all day."

He said said members had been advised to stop using test lenses on more than one person with immediate effect.

"We are meeting officials from the Department of Health on Monday to clarify the situation," he said.

The government warning came after concerns raised by experts on the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC), the independent team of scientists advising the Government on BSE and CJD.

Sir John Pattison, the committee's chairman, said that it was surprised to learn that it was common practice for opticians to try the same contact lenses on several patients.

"There is not much data about the issue but the re-use of trial lenses did not seem to us a good idea. The risk is very low, but corneas do get abraded and eyes get inflamed, so the eye could carry the new variant CJD infection.

There was no evidence that anyone had died of CJD after developing it from contact lenses," he said.

The classical form of CJD has been found to be spread in the past by transplants of infected corneas.

In a statement the committee said: "Any potential risk is probably very low, but the committee felt strongly that the Department of Health should encourage opticians to adopt, as a matter of best practice, the single use of trial lenses followed by safe disposal."

A department spokesman said: "Immediately acting on concerns about multiple- use trial contact lenses, Frank Dobson asked SEAC to consider the issue at its meeting on 3 June.

"In line with SEAC's advice, the Secretary of State has now asked officials to take whatever steps are necessary to end the multiple use of these trial contact lenses."

*Fears that bottles of French wine containing dried cow's blood could be on sale in the UK despite a ban on using the product following the BSE scare were yesterday played down by major outlets.

The latest European scare comes as French authorities seized 100,000 suspect bottles thought to contain the blood after a swoop on 14 vineyards in the Cotes du Rhone area.

Senior wine buyers said these low-grade wines, which do not specify which region they come from, are unlikely to find their way on to local shop shelves.