Cytomegalovirus (CMV) retinitis is a disease associated with late-stage AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome). It invades the retina, affects the light-sensitive receptors in the eye and thereby threatens vision.

In the past, CMV retinitis presented in approximately 25% of active AIDS patients. Yet thankfully due to a powerful combination of drugs that can restore function to the immune system, this statistic appears to be dropping.

Symptoms of CMV Retinitis

No pain is felt when CMV attacks the retina. Along with decreased visual clarity, poor peripheral vision and distorted vision, small specks or floaters may be seen. Sudden loss of vision or flashes of light are frequently experienced. Changes to the retina and optic nerve in AIDS patients may also occur with no clear indications of CMV retinitis.

Although CMV retinitis generally begins in one eye, it often involves both eyes. When untreated, it can cause retinal detachment and blindness within a half a year.

Causes of CMV Retinitis

Cytomegalovirus, a very common virus, is responsible for CMV retinitis. Antibodies to CMV are present in approximately 80% of adults, which shows that their immune systems fought off the virus successfully. However, AIDS patients have a weakened immune system that cannot overcome the virus. Other people with a compromised immune system, such as chemotherapy patients, are also at a higher risk for CMV retinitis.

Treatment for CMV Retinitis

Anyone with active AIDS who begins to experience visual symptoms must see a retina specialist immediately. Once diagnosed with CMV retinitis, regular appointments are generally made with the specialist every two to four weeks. After the disease is under control, follow-up visits with a regular eye doctor are usually recommended every three to six months.

A range of anti-viral drugs are prescribed to treat CMV retinitis, including: foscarnet (Foscavir), ganciclover (Cytovene) and cidofovir (Vistide). While these medicines can slow the progression of CMV, they are not able to cure it and are associated with some unpleasant or serious side effects.

Ganciclovir is given by intravenous infusion for two weeks and then taken in the form of a pill. It is also available in an implant called Vitrasert. By releasing medication directly into the eye, the implant version does not cause side effects generally experienced when taking a pill or intravenous infusion.

Medicine for HIV

Highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) is the most prominent breakthrough in AIDS treatment. This potent combination of drugs suppresses HIV, which is the AIDS virus, and allows the immune system to gain enough strength to fight infections such as CMV retinitis.

Anyone who has AIDS, is HIV positive or has a compromised immune system due to any cause should see an eye doctor regularly to inspect for any signs of CMV retinitis. If a diagnosis of a CMV-related eye condition is made, it’s important to immediately discuss the latest available treatments with a qualified medical professional.