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Meningitis linked to steroid blamed for 5 deaths, 30 illnesses

October 04, 2012|By Michael Muskal

At least five people have died in an outbreak of a rare form of meningitis caused by a fungal infection from steroids often used to combat back pain, said government officials, who warned against using products from the drug manufacturer.

In a telephone news conference  Thursday, officials of the national  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration said that, in addition to causing the five deaths, the treatment with methylprednisolone acetate has sickened 30 people in six states.

All of the infections have been blamed on three product lots from the New England Compounding Center, a specialty pharmacy in Framingham, Mass. The lots date from July, but “out of an abundance of caution,” the FDA is advising medical practitioners to discontinue using all of the company's products, the FDA’s Ilisa Bernstein said. 

Last week, the company announced that it had voluntarily recalled the steroid and suspended operations while it works with regulators to identify the source of the problem.

The scope of the outbreak is difficult to determine because the medication has been distributed in 23 states to an estimated 75 facilities, the CDC's Dr. Benjamin Park said at the news conference. “We expect to see additional cases soon,” Park said.

The steroid injections are mainly used to ease back pain. Because there are other manufacturers of methylprednisolone acetate, patients and doctors need to first check what product was administered before proceeding further.

Other steroid products, including those used to treat conditions such as asthma, are not the subject of concern, officials said.

Meningitis is an inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord. Symptoms can include severe headache, nausea and fever.

The type of meningitis in the current outbreak is considered extremely rare and often hard to detect, officials said. Treatment is generally an anti-fungal medication -- administered intravenously in a hospital setting -- that can last months, depending on the case.

Tennessee is the epicenter of the outbreak, with 25 cases reported; the latest death was reported Thursday. Many of the cases involve patients at the Saint Thomas Outpatient Neurosurgery Center in Nashville, which received 2,000 vials of the suspect lots. The clinic voluntarily closed last month to deal with the investigation.

It can take weeks for the fungal infection to incubate. As a precaution, Tennessee officials have notified more than 900 people who received the steroid in recent months.

In all, 35 patients have been sickened, with three deaths in Tennessee and one each in Virginia and  Maryland. Other cases have been reported in Indiana, Florida and North Carolina.

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