Coronavirus (COVID-19) and the eyes

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Representation of a coronavirus virion

On 31 December 2019, China notified WHO of a pneumonia outbreak of then unknown aetiology in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people in Hubei province. The seafood market thought to be the source, was closed on 1 January 2020. The causative organism was identified on 7 January 2020 as a novel coronavirus, with a genetic sequence of at least 19 strains found in infected patients, so far (COVID-19).

The spread of COVID-19 is rapidly spreading around the world with well-reported effects on the economic and social activity of affected countries. It appears to be at an early but rapidly progressing phase in the UK and the government is acting out a well-devised plan from its health advisors to minimise the effect of the virus on the population.

Though corona virus infections are spread principally by direct transmission and respiratory droplets, viral particles may be shed that contaminate hands and then mucous membranes, like the conjunctiva or mouth. That makes hand washing a powerful way of avoiding infection.

COVID-19 is being spread by human-to-human transmission is occurring among close contacts, with reports of significant numbers of healthcare professionals being infected and some deaths, including one ophthalmologist. One healthcare worker was infected despite using a gown and respirator with the first symptom being unilateral conjunctivitis, followed by development of fever a few hours later. Healthcare workers in China are now urged to use eye protection when they are in close contact with patients.

COVID-19 is probably transmitted mainly by respiratory spread and appears to be highly infectious. The WHO recommends using goggles and face masks, healthcare workers are advised against touching the eyes, nose or mouth. Infected patients should be isolated rapidly, with avoidance of unnecessary direct contact.

Eye doctors, at a time of limited information, must be careful when treating cases with viral conjunctivitis in clinic, in case it is from a COVID-19 infection. They must enquire about travel history, systemic flu-like symptoms and family history. Particular care must be taken when examining patients, due to the proximity of the patients’ nose and mouth and potential exposure to virus laden tears. The usual measures that apply to prevention of infection transmission, including hand hygiene, apply.

Patients should exercise discretion when booking in with the doctor and if there is a possibility being infected, a telephone consultation can be arranged. For Edgbaston Eye Consultants call 0121 456 3444 and one of our doctors will call you back to give advice and, if required, appropriate eye drops can be delivered to you. Remember that though COVID-19 infection can be very unpleasant, it is unlikely to be life-threatening unless there are underlying health issues. We should follow a rule of the four ‘c’s of common sense, consideration, compliance and cooperation, to see out this epidemic.

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