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Contaminated water linked to soaring KZN pink eye cases

The National Eye Health Advocacy Project believes there could be a link between an outbreak of ‘pink eye’ – conjunctivitis – in KwaZulu-Natal and contaminated water, and says there should be greater alarm about the escalating number of cases.

What started as a small outbreak at the Mangosuthu University of Technology in Umlazi, has ballooned to more than 13 000 cases, with concerned health practitioners calling on the provincial Health Department to find the pathogen causing the spreading infection.

Nevashan Govender, the operations manager for the Emergency Operations Centre at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), said the centre was aware of a “possible conjunctivitis outbreak” and has been monitoring it.

On 22 March, speaking at the provincial executive council, KwaZulu-Natal Premier Nomusa Dube-Ncube said there were 13 593 cases, urging preventative measures such as hand washing so that the health system didn’t become “overwhelmed”.

But the National Eye Health Advocacy Project told Daily Maverick there should be greater alarm, and called on the Health Department to publish more information about the type of conjunctivitis being diagnosed by clinics and hospitals.

“Many ocular diseases can be attributed to contaminated water and we use the term ‘water-related ocular diseases’ to denote this spectrum of diseases. (These diseases) are directly related to human interaction with contaminated water and can occur through toxic, allergic, inflammatory or infective mechanisms,” it said.

It also warned that conjunctivitis could cause severe damage and even blindness in immunocompromised individuals and the elderly.

“Beyond ‘pink eye’, additional risks present for ocular disease linked to acanthamoeba and pseudomonas, both of which require extensive public health awareness and urgent preventive measures.”

Acanthamoeba is a microscopic single-celled living organism that can cause rare but severe infections of the eye, skin and central nervous system. Pseudomonas is a type of bacteria.

“While the department has advised the public to exercise good hygiene as a preventive measure, we wish to highlight that good hygiene is unavoidably attached to access to safe and clean water.”

Neither the provincial Health Department nor the eThekwini Municipality responded to questions about their investigations into the outbreak or the possibility of contaminated water being the cause.


Daily Maverick article KZN pink eye cases top 13,000 amid fears outbreak could be linked to ‘contaminated’ water (Open access)


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