In Tennessee alone, as of early October, 18 people have been infected by fungal meningitis and three people have died. The outbreak occurred after people received a steroid injection in their backs.
Doctors, hospitals and clinics use the medication, methylprednisolone acetate, to relieve back pain. It was shipped to 75 different hospitals in 23 states. When tested after the first case at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Tennessee, doctors found spores of a common leaf mold: Aspergillus. Aspergillus is the black mold one commonly sees on decaying food and plant material. The first patient to have contracted fungal meningitis was one of the five who died as a result of the infection.
According to Dr. Ben Park of the Center for Disease Control, three lots of the drug were shipped in July, and he expects to see more cases of fungal meningitis. The FDA does not know how many does that were sent out have been tainted, according to Ilisa Bernstein, a FDA spokesperson.
Symptoms of fungal meningitis include headaches, a stiff neck, nausea and stroke-like symptoms. People affected may have trouble finding words, and may feel weak and numb. Dr. Ben Park advised those with these symptoms to get to the hospital right away from anti-fungal therapy to hopefully avoid some “unfortunate consequences.” It could take up to four weeks for fungal meningitis to incubate in the body.
It could take months of intravenous treatments to treat the fungal meningitis; and some people may have permanent neurological damage, even with treatment.
Doctors expect to see more cases of fungal meningitis, but are not sure how many. It depends on how fast doctors, clinics and hospitals get the drug off their shelves. The lots of tainted drugs were also sent to West Virginia, Texas, Virginia, Tennessee, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Michigan, Maryland, Indiana, Georgia, Florida, Connecticut and California.
The tainted drug was sent from New England Compounding Center, a compounding pharmacy. According to Shots, NPR’s health blog, compounding pharmacies such as NECC are not as tightly regulated as traditional drug companies. Compounding pharmacies make up about 10 percent of the pharmacies in the United States.
A Massachusetts state pharmacy board licensed NECC, but it does not have the staff to conduct regular inspections. Since the outbreak, NECC, based in Framingham, Mass., stopped answering calls, took its main website down and suspended operations in the first week of October.
Though the fungal spores were found in the sample taken from the first patient to contract the disease at Vanderbilt University Medical Center a few weeks ago, the FDA inspectors just now identified it themselves. The FDA recommends hospitals, clinics and doctors stop using any NECC medicine. The FDA spokesperson stated that “these precautionary measures are warranted to protect the public.”