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It's Easy to Miss the Memo on Product Recalls

What happens when a dangerous product is recalled and you don't get the message? That happened to James Millard Wilson, a young art student in Baltimore.

Wilson started wearing contact lenses in April. He first realized something was wrong at the end of June. He blamed it on his summer job.

"My eyes had been really irritated," he says. "I was working as a house painter and I thought it was paint fumes, dust and scraping, but my contacts got worse and worse."

And his eyes hurt.

"It was a very sharp, stinging pain. Often I wasn't able to open my left eye," he says.

The next day he made it to work.

"But I was in a lot of pain," Wilson says. "I showed up and a co-worker took one look at my eyes and said 'Man, you have to go to the hospital.'"

Blurry Nightmare

So he went to Sinai Hospital and some swift detective work by the ophthalmologists there revealed the problem: Wilson had a rare infection in his eye, probably related to the contact-lens cleaning solution he had been using – American Medical Optic's (AMO) Complete MoisturePLUS Multipurpose Contact Lens Solution.

The company had recalled the product, but Wilson was still using a bottle he had gotten from his eye doctor in April.

Tim Ulatowski of the Food and Drug Administration says that the problem with the product became apparent around the end of May. On Friday of the Memorial Day weekend, the FDA received a warning from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Data showed a sudden upswing in a rare infection called Acanthamoeba keratitis, caused by an amoeba. There were 138 cases in 35 states and Puerto Rico.

People who used the contact-lens cleaning solution were at least seven times more likely to get the infection than other contact-lens wearers. If not treated soon enough, the infection can lead to blindness.

"We contacted AMO, and to their credit, AMO took very quick action with their product," Ulatowski says.

The word went out that same day. The FDA, CDC and manufacturer AMO posted recall notices on their Web sites and sent out press releases.

AMO contacted health care professionals and stores via the Internet, phone and mail. Ulatowski says the agency's press office went into high gear.

"We rely on the media to a greater or lesser extent depending on the particular recall we're working on," he says.

But consumer activists say that's not enough.

Missing the Memo

"Now the problem with that, of course, is that if you're not reading, watching or listening in the right place, you're gonna miss the news," says Donald Mays, senior director for public safety planning for Consumer Reports magazine.

Many people did miss the announcement. The company checked and found stores that still had Complete MoisturePLUS Multipurpose solution on their shelves.

Reports of new infections came in to the CDC. The FDA had to send out a second press release a couple of weeks ago. Ulatowski said the challenge was the size of the recall — 28 million bottles since May 2005.

"It's difficult to reach into everyone's medicine cabinet to determine that that product has been controlled and returned or disposed of by the consumer," he says.

But art student James Wilson never got the word. He has no Internet connection in the warehouse loft where he lives. TV reception is bad, and the local alternative weekly paper he reads didn't contain a notice of the recall.

For people who do have Internet connections, and are motivated, there are informative Web sites at your service. Fred Richman at the Office of Enforcement in the FDA, shows off the FDA Web site at www.fda.gov.

"As you'll see, the headlines, the latest recalls are right up at the top under 'FDA News,'" he says.

Drill down a little and you can get a full description of the recalled products: names and lot numbers, and even photos of some of the products.

But without an Internet connection, Wilson likely won't go back to contact lenses.

"No, no way," he says. "This whole experience left me a little wary about contacts."

He's going to stick with the nice, new tortoiseshell glasses he just bought.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joanne Silberner is a health policy correspondent for National Public Radio. She covers medicine, health reform, and changes in the health care marketplace.