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HomeminewsRaging Bushfires, Dense Smoke, Sore Eyes – What’s the Solution?

Raging Bushfires, Dense Smoke, Sore Eyes – What’s the Solution?

With fires raging around the outskirts of Sydney, torching homes in the Blue Mountains and threatening property in the Illawarra and Hunter Valley, we’re all reminded of the multitude of lives lost in Melbourne in 2009, those in Canberra in 2003 and well back into history.

There’s much the eye care community can do to provide people who’ve run from their homes with only the clothes they’re wearing… replacement glasses, contact lenses, contact lens solution, and medications to begin with.

Gavin Bigland from Bigland and Cowley Optometrists in Springwood in the Blue Mountains told mivision he’d had a trail of people coming in for assistance.

“We’re very close to the bushfires which have destroyed about 200 houses. The fire just took hold so quickly.

“A lot of people who’ve lost their homes are our patients. They’ve been coming in dribs and drabs for contact lenses or glasses. They look so despondent. We’re just trying to replace whatever they’ve lost at cost – we don’t want a profit. I don’t know what each patient’s financial situation is right now but I know they’ll have some big expenses coming.”

Mr. Bigland said he had secured assistance from eyewear suppliers.

“I’ve chatted to Essilor and Hoya and Domani frames, I’ll talk to more over the coming days – and they’re happy to help out by providing frames and lenses at minimal cost to the patients.”

Victorian optometrist Peter Merrington had his home in Gisborne in 1983 when fires swept through. “My family was evacuated and I can remember coming into Gisborne the next morning. Some of the local towns had been pretty much destroyed and sadly quite a few residents had perished. I went to the Shire Chambers to help out and most of the people sitting there were totally dazed and in shock – they were in that state for a long period of time.”

Twenty six years later, during the 2009 fires in Victoria Mr. Merrington publicly offered victims of the fire free spectacles.

Johnson and Johnson Vision Care’s Professional Affairs Director Luke Cahill, travelled to Victoria with a team during the 2009 fires to work on the ground. Speaking of the experience, he told mivision at the time, “replacement ready-mades and sunglasses remained popular, but we soon found eye drops were in strongest demand this close to the site of the bushfire’s worst destruction. Clearly, sustained exposure to smoke, ash and grit had caused immense irritation to peoples’ eyes over time.

“By the end of the van’s journey through the devastation zone, we had dispensed some 500 pairs of ready-mades, 1000 pairs of sunglasses and 800 boxes of eye drops to victims, affected residents, firefighters and other involved in the relief effort.”

Associate Professor Colin Chan from Vision Eye Institute said some groups of people will find the bush fire season less easy to cope with than others, from an ocular perspective.

“The smoke and ash falling will contain fine irritant particles. These will cause more irritation to people who already have reduced tear clearance, poor tear films or stronger inflammatory responses to environmental stressors. The people at risk are therefore the elderly, dry eye and allergy sufferers and contact lens wearers and people whom have had recent ocular surgery.

“My message is pretty common sense: avoid going outside, wear protective eyewear and use plenty of artificial tears to protect against and flush out any particles.”

However, optometrist Jim Kokkinakis warms against recommending any old tears.

“Having worked in a smoked filled environment as a young optometry student (behind a bar in the very early 80s) I can assure you I know first hand smoke is tough on the eyes.

“Unfortunately, the first place that patients end up from red, irritated eyes is a pharmacy. They have a number of go-to products, which really are unhelpful. Decongestants are often prescribed by pharmacists as the presenting complaint is redness. The problem with these drops is they are quite addictive and they perpetuate the redness cycle. The second problem is nearly all bottled drops have preservatives, which in turn can cause toxicity reactions to the eye.

“Our approach invariably is to prescribe preservative free lubricants, of which there are many, and to avoid decongestants. Combining these two things with already irritated eyes is a recipe for ongoing issues.”

Mr. Merrington had some sage advice to offer optometrists working in areas struck by bush fire “Optometrists, particularly those in independent practice, are very used to spending time with patients and talking with them. I think they’re just going to have to do just that.”

You can contribute funds to support victims of the NSW bushfires.
St Vincent de Paul: www.vinnies.org.au/nsw-bushfire-appeal-nsw
Salvation Army: www.salvos.org.au