Woman almost loses vision after contracting rare cowpox infection from her cat

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  • A UK woman experienced redness and discharge in her eye, which turned out to be a rare zoonotic infection named cowpox
  • Doctors determined that she had picked up the condition from her cat
  • She underwent surgery and now reportedly has 20/20 vision 

A 28-year-old woman from the UK had to undergo emergency eye surgery after developing a severe infection which doctors later determined was a rare, viral skin disease that she contracted from her cat.

According to the case report published in the New England Journal of Medicine, she had experienced redness, irritation, and discharge in the right eye for five days. Despite antibiotics and antiviral drugs used to treat common eye infections, her symptoms persisted and worsened over time. 

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

Finding the clue

Thankfully, the patient informed the doctors that her pet cat had developed lesions on its head and paws two weeks earlier. When doctors took samples from the cat’s lesions and the patient’s eye and ran tests, they confirmed that the cat had cowpox – a cousin of smallpox – which it passed on to the patient.

The cowpox lesions on the pet cat's paw. (Image credit: The New England Journal of Medicine ©2021)

“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,” wrote the doctors. Orthopoxvirus is a family of viruses that includes smallpox, cowpox, and monkeypox.

Doctors removed dead cells from the woman’s eye and treated her with steroids and other medication. They reported that the vision in her right eye returned to a perfect 20/20 six months later. Unfortunately, she still suffers from eyelid droopiness and restricted eye movement, they added.

Transmission to humans is rare

Cowpox is known to infect multiple animal species, including cows, elephants, and cats. Although currently rare in cattle, medical literature indicates that it’s prevalent in rodents. According to Kiernan, cats can become infected when they kill rodents carrying the virus, but transmission from cats to people is rare. He said the patient may have become infected when she petted her cat and then touched or rubbed her eyes.

Orthopoxviruses remain in certain parts of the world, said Kiernan, including cowpox in Europe, while monkeypox is found in central and west Africa.

Two cases of monkeypox were detected in Wales this month. According to the BBC, had likely been acquired overseas. Both patients were admitted to the hospital. Fortunately, the disease is much less severe than smallpox and not easily transmitted from human to human, experts said.

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