COVID-19 has led to spike in children’s eye exposures to hand sanitizer: study

OTTAWA — A recent study out of France has found that children have reported a 700-per-cent spike in reported eye exposures to hand sanitizer during the spring and summer months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The study, published Thursday in JAMA Ophthalmology, found that while overall reports of chemical eye splatters in children to France’s eight poison control centres had declined in the first few months of pandemic, the number of calls relating to alcohol-based hand sanitizers (ABHS) exposure in children’s eyes spiked seven fold.

Using data from the French National Database of Poisonings between April and August 24, 2020 and the same period in 2019 and 2020, the researchers found that poison centres in France received 232 calls about children’s eye exposure to hand sanitizer in the months following the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, compared to just 22 the year prior.

Additionally, the researchers found that 16 children were admitted to an eye hospital for hand sanitizer-based injuries between April and August 2020, compared to just one child over the same period in 2019.

“Using 2 complementary data sets, we showed a seven-fold increase in the number of ABHS eye exposures in children with several cases of serious corneal lesions, while such exposures were anecdotal before,” the researchers wrote in the reporter.

Using the data, the researchers also found that the proportion of calls related to hand sanitizer and children increased each month between April and August, which they speculate could be due to how prevalent public hand sanitizer stations became in the summer months.

“The pediatric specificity of this outbreak is most likely owing to the emplacement of the gel dispenser in the proximity of children’s faces,” the researchers note in the study. “Dispensers, often pressure-operated via a pedal, allow the delivery of unit doses of ABHS. However, these devices are usually around one (metre) in height, delivering ABHS at the level of small children’s eyes.”

The dataset also noted that 63 cases of eye exposure to sanitizers occurred in a public places, compared to zero in 2019. Most commonly, the exposure occurred in malls, but other reports came from restaurants, sports arenas and movie theatres.

“With the current widespread use of hand sanitizer in public places, it is not unexpected that young children would be drawn to these dispensers, many of which appear to be inadvertently designed to facilitate contact between the hand sanitizer and young eyes,” Dr. Kathryn Colby, with the department of ophthalmology at the New York University medical school, wrote in a commentary that accompanied the study.

Given the data, the researchers warn that health authorities should be careful when putting out hand sanitizer in a public place and encourage these authorities to promote soap and water as the safer option.

“To maintain good public compliance with hand disinfection, these findings support that health authorities should ensure the safe use of ABHS,” the report states. “Caution in positioning the dispensers in public places, in addition to informative illustrations emphasizing the risk of unintentional exposures in children, are required in all countries to prevent further severe ocular injury.”

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