A laboratory technician packages spinal fluid for testing for fungal meningitis. (Hannah Foslien / Associated…)
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported this week that the number of people who had died in the ongoing fungal meningitis outbreak had increased to 29, with the latest death occurring in Virginia.
In all, the CDC said, 404 people had been sickened after receiving tainted steroid injections in their backs or in peripheral joints. As of Oct. 22, 54 people had confirmed cases of meningitis from the shots. Others had infections in joints such as knees, shoulders or ankles. Some suffered strokes that are believed to be associated with the illness.
The medication, a preservative-free steroid called methylprednisolone acetate, is used to treat arthritis and back pain. The tainted drugs all came from the New England Compounding Center, a facility in Framingham, Mass. Inspections of the compounding facility by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration revealed a number of safety lapses, including greenish-black foreign matter floating in vials of medication, water leaking from boilers and discoloration on equipment used for sterilization.
Fungal meningitis, an infection of the tissues that line the brain and spinal cord, can be deadly but is not contagious. The CDC has warned more than 14,000 patients who received injections from the New England Compounding Center to be on the lookout for symptoms of meningitis, which include fever, vomiting, sensitivity to light and headache, for several months.
The meningitis outbreak is having ripple effects. Also this week, a Westborough, Mass.-based compounding facility called Ameridose, run by some of the same people who operated the New England Compounding Center, issued a voluntary recall of its unexpired products at the FDA’s urging. But that action could exacerbating shortages of a number of life-saving drugs used during surgery and to treat heart failure and other ailments, wrote FDA commissioner Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg in a blog post published Friday. In her post, she detailed the steps the agency would take to mitigate any shortages that might arise. The FDA has doubled the staff working on drug shortages, she noted.
A CDC page about the meningitis outbreak is here. Click here for a map showing the distribution of cases throughout the U.S. The FDA offers a page of frequently asked questions here.