Government can do more to protect New Yorkers, optometrist says

The 21st-century eye should be fitted with some form of protection — whether it be a pair of emergency contact lenses to block out harmful ultraviolet rays or the municipal version to shield the elderly and the ill from the toxic fumes emitted by vehicular exhaust, Dr. Robert Kanter, a Harlem-based optometrist, told a press conference at the New York University School of Medicine Thursday.

But while wearing corrective lenses for the potential risk of the Zika virus, as some pregnant women did this week in Miami, is not a serious medical issue, it’s not a good idea either, Kanter said. His prediction that some people would have trouble with Zika-protection-without-protective-lenses led to a healthy debate among his colleagues.

People who say eye exams might not detect the virus aren’t being honest, Kanter said.

“It is time to recognize that some vulnerable individuals — pregnant women, adults with poor vision and young children — may experience illness or complications of the Zika virus,” he said.

Both the New York City Department of Health and the New York Police Department have announced efforts this week to identify pregnant women or those with “egg abnormalities” who may have been bitten by a Zika-carrying mosquito.

New York has the highest concentration of Zika virus in the country, with 372 confirmed cases, and more than 250 cases worldwide.

Zika virus has been linked to microcephaly, a birth defect in which a baby’s head is too small, a major problem for babies born to infected mothers. According to the CDC, up to 70% of infected women may give birth to a baby with microcephaly and up to 40% to a baby with severe brain defects.

Kanter said only an investigation would provide conclusive evidence of cause and effect, but said doctors should take measures to prevent pregnant women from having unprotected sex with men who have been bitten by a Zika-carrying mosquito. He said condoms should be used to prevent transmission of Zika.

CNN has reached out to the New York City Department of Health about Kanter’s recommendations, but has not heard back.

Kanter said mosquitoes aren’t only harmful to pregnant women, and the threat of Zika is real even for people who don’t know they have Zika-related symptoms, like rashes and joint pain.

“Both sexes, regardless of the sex you’re having sex with, should wear eye protection inside at all times,” Kanter said.

Specifically, he cited the city’s “dirty air” program, which alerts people to the worst offenders in New York — cars, trucks, boats and construction sites.

New York City’s BxNYC app allows residents to photograph their polluted air and submit them to the health department’s air data portal for inclusion in air reports.

Like many cities, New York has been releasing numbers of dangerous pollutants like the ones that cause respiratory distress into the air, according to Kanter. Many years ago, eyes were a poor option for people with pneumonia-like symptoms because the eye and the nose were big targets for exposure, but now, they’re better.

“You don’t need an eye exam to see that you’ve been exposed to smog and to pesticides,” Kanter said.

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