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More than 50 people have contracted the disease

Confusion over group of rare eye cancer cases

A disproportionately high number of rare eye cancer cases has been causing confusion among doctors and researchers in the US.

The experts have been unable to explain why ocular melanoma, a cancer that occurs in about six in every one million individuals, has affected more than 50 people in Huntersville, North Carolina and Auburn, Alabama.

At least four people have already succumbed to the disease, and CNN has reported that 38 of those diagnosed had attended Auburn University between 1983 and 2001.

The exact cause of the cancer is still unknown, but people with light eye and skin colour have a higher risk of contracting the disease, especially those who have had exposure to high levels of artificial ultraviolet radiation.

"There must be some link, and if we can find that link, we’re that much closer to finding a cure and preventing people from continuing to get this."
Allyson Allred, Cancer survivor

Dr Marlana Orloff, an oncologist from the Jefferson University Hospitals in Philadelphia who is treating the patients from Alabama, said the initial symptoms had ranged from spots in the visual field, to blurry vision and sight loss.

“For the primary eye tumors, it will either be incidentally picked up on routine eye exam having no symptoms, or more commonly patients have symptoms of a retinal detachment with flashes and floaters or blurry vision,” Orloff said.

A 2001 study also suggested certain occupations such as metal workers or cooks are at higher risks of having the disease.

However, Orloff stated that no common cause had been identified with the current groups, despite the fact that it is “a unique accumulation of cases.”

The Alabama Department of Public Health is evaluating the recent increase in cases, but is also currently at a loss as to how to explain the spike in cases of the disease.

“We are working closely with Auburn, a survivor we have connected with and Dr Orloff’s team. We are collaborating and working in an advisory role; the survivor who has spoken out is providing us a complete list of all those who have been sickened, and then we will work to verify the incidents and make sure the cases meet the definition of ocular melanoma,” Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) director of cancer epidemiology Dr Justin George said in an interview with CNN.

Auburn University has also responded to the reports, and acknowledged it is working with the ADPH and researchers from the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center to investigate the possible cause.


“While we have been informed by ADPH officials that it would be premature to determine that a cancer cluster exists in the area, we are cooperating fully with their work. The health and safety of our students, employees and alumni are of the utmost importance,” the university’s statement read.

However, a former Auburn student who has already lost one eye after being diagnosed with the disease in 2001, Ms Allyson Allred, is convinced there is a link.

Allread studied education at the university and said she knew of at least two other patients who had lived in neighbouring sororities, and who were also education majors.

“I was the second one diagnosed from Auburn, and I’m the one who told my doctor in Philadelphia that I had two friends with the same cancer, and that’s when they realised there may be a cluster in Auburn and started researching this,” Allred said.

“We need the funding for the research to figure out what possibly could be the environmental cause… There must be some link, and if we can find that link, we’re that much closer to finding a cure and preventing people from continuing to get this.”

Ocular melanomas are the second most common type of melanoma behind skin melanomas, representing around 5% of all cases. However, ocular melanomas behave much differently than skin melanomas and are generally considered to be more lethal.

While there is no known cure, radiation therapy and surgery can help prolong the length and quality of life.


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