Woman needs emergency eye surgery after getting rare disease from pet cat

·3-min read
The woman contracted cowpox from her cat, which had lesions on its paw (R). (NEJM)
The woman contracted cowpox from her cat, which had lesions on its paw. (NEJM)

A 28-year-old woman had to undergo emergency eye surgery after getting a rare disease from her pet cat.

The unnamed woman from London is believed to have contracted cowpox after touching the cat and then her right eye, according to details published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM).

She spent five days in hospital when her eye reddened, swelled and started to discharge, with doctors fearing she may lose part of her vision.

Ophthalmologist Dr Miles Kiernan, who treated the patient at Royal Free Hospital in London, told Live Science: “Our concern was that the infection would permanently damage her vision, or possibly spread beyond the orbit [eye socket].”

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LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 03: A general view of the emergency department at the Royal Free Hospital in the Borough of Camden on January 3, 2021 in London, England. The Uk has recorded more than 50,000 new cases of Covid-19 for sixth day in a row. (Photo by Hollie Adams/Getty Images)
The woman was treated at the Royal Free Hospital in Camden, London. (Getty)

Doctors initially removed dead cells from her eye and also gave her antibiotics but these failed to work, the report added.

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Medics then found out two weeks earlier the woman’s cat had paw and head lesions.

Tests determined the animal had cowpox, which is a cousin of smallpox, and doctors subsequently treated the woman with steroids and other medication.

“Polymerase-chain-reaction (PCR) tests of scrapings from the lesions taken by a veterinarian were positive for orthopoxvirus, and a PCR test of a conjunctival swab from the patient was also positive for orthopoxvirus,” researchers wrote in NEJM.

They added: “Genome sequencing confirmed a diagnosis of cowpox.”

The woman’s vision in her right eye returned to perfect 20/20 six months later but she still suffers eyelid droopiness and restricted eye movement.

Despite the eradication of smallpox, Dr Kiernan said that "orthopoxviruses remained in certain parts of the world, including cowpox in Europe, and monkeypox in central and west Africa".

The UK is currently suffering an outbreak of monkeypox after two cases were detected in Wales last week.

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Health secretary Matt Hancock revealed information about the outbreak while giving evidence to a committee of MPs about the government's handling of the COVID pandemic.

He said: "As health secretary, you’re dealing with these sorts of outbreaks all of the time. I’m currently dealing with a monkeypox outbreak and cases of drug-resistant TB [tuberculosis], and that is absolutely standard.

“And the lack of that capability at the start meant the options that we had were fewer."

Monkeypox does not travel easily from human to human so the threat to the general public is thought to be low.

The first case of monkeypox reportedly came from someone catching it abroad, who then passed the illness on to someone in their household.

Both people have been admitted to hospital, where one remains.

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