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FDA warns of infection risk from several eye drops on the market

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Eyedrops sold at Target, Walmart and CVS are the focus of a new national warning and product recall. The Food and Drug Administration is urging people to stop buying and using more than two dozen over-the-counter products due to a risk of infection that could result in partial vision loss or blindness. Gary Novack is a clinical professor of ophthalmology and vision science at the University of California, Davis School of Medicine. He's been following the recall, and he joins us now. Welcome to the program.

GARY NOVACK: Thank you. I'm happy to talk to you today.

RASCOE: So this is the second eyedrop-related recall this year. The first happened back in February. So what is going on with this?

NOVACK: Right. So the first one in February had to do with two issues, both a problem at the manufacturer and that that product was inappropriately made. The more recent ones are due to some unsanitary conditions and bacteria found as it's being manufactured.

RASCOE: And these recent ones are eyedrops that are sold at Target, Walmart and - so some major places, right?

NOVACK: That's correct. And so I want to emphasize to your listeners and to all patients - is that this does not apply to prescription drugs. These are just over-the-counter products.

RASCOE: Are these eyedrops for dry eyes?

NOVACK: I believe that all the ones recalled recently are just for dry eye. They're not for redness.

RASCOE: What is it about eyedrops in particular that are of concern, whereas you might not be as concerned about, you know, buying some over-the-counter cough medicine or, you know, cold medicine or something?

NOVACK: Our current regulations on eyedrops is that they all need to be sterile. And that's because the eye doesn't have some of the protections like an acidic stomach that could kill certain bad things. So whenever you put a drop in the eye, we want it to be sterile because it's going to prevent the risk of contamination. You know that when you cry, your nose runs. And that's because the tears run down into the nose. They can then be absorbed into other parts of the body. So there's less protection for things in the eyes getting to the rest of the body. And so that's why sterility is an important concern.

RASCOE: Is the FDA inspecting at a level that you think is enough to make sure that these eye drops are not contaminated or not potentially contaminated?

NOVACK: So during the pandemic, the FDA did not inspect. There was a travel ban, as I understand it. And so I think what we're seeing now - we know that, for example, in 2022, there was an inspection of the facility, the one that ended up in these terrible occurrences that we heard about in February. Probably what's happening is there is an increase, at least relative to pandemic times, in the number of inspections. And on these inspections, FDA is finding, again, unsanitary conditions in these products.

RASCOE: OK. Well, these are things I had never thought about. So I'm really glad that I'm talking to you. So what should someone do if they're worried about the eyedrops they've been using?

NOVACK: For these over-the-counter tear products, I mean, those who have access can go to FDA's website. They also can ask the pharmacist. These are products that have been recalled, should have been removed from the shelf. But it is possible someone might have purchased these a while ago. There are a number of other things patients should do in general, which is if it's a product that is only for one use and they know that because they're labeled single use - they're little - we call them plastic squeezy things. They shouldn't try to reuse these products. They're not designed to be sterile for more than one use.

RASCOE: That's Gary Novack of the UC Davis School of Medicine. Thank you so much for joining us.

NOVACK: Thank you. A pleasure to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
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