Thanks to one manufacturer's shoddy processing and quality control, 91 people have now contracted a dangerous form of fungal meningitis. Cases began being reported across the country early last week, and were soon linked to having received a spinal injection of methylprednisolone acetate which had been contaminated with a fungus.
Fungal meningitis outbreak linked to steroid shots
91 cases identified so far; 7 deaths
The shots were produced in three batches by the New England Compounding Center (NECC) which swiftly issued a voluntary recall alert. The FDA confiscated their license to operate on Wednesday. Over the weekend, the NECC announced a recall of all of its products from shelves across the country, although they hastened to add that this most recent measure is simply the result of "an abundance of caution."
Meningitis is a serious condition, and can frequently be fatal. It happens when the membranes surrounding the brain become inflamed, which puts pressure on the brain. The fungal version is very rare and not contagious, and it comes on a little more slowly than the more common versions. Bacterial meningitis can frequently be fatal within 24 hours. Viral meningitis gives you a few extra days before fatality sets in. Even if the patient survives, the damage can be permanent. I have a family member who survived viral meningitis, but was left with permanent muscle tremors.
The classic symptom of meningitis is flu-like symptoms (fever, nausea, aches) accompanied by a tremendous headache and a stiff neck. Fungal meningitis can also cause dizziness, confusion, and sensitivity to bright lights. Anyone experiencing these symptoms should seek treatment immediately. If it is after hours, meningitis is serious enough that you should go to an emergency room.
The NECC is not a traditional pharmaceutical company. It is what's called a "compounding pharmacy," which means that the drugs it produces "do not have to go through FDA-mandated approval." It is up to each state's health pharmacy board to oversee their products.
Compound pharmacies take over where the larger pharmaceutical companies have gaps: typically in putting together custom formulas for specific applications. In the case of methylprednisone acetate for spinal injection, larger pharmaceutical companies may not have found it worthwhile to produce this medicine, so the compounding pharmacy steps in.
So far 7 people have died, and more cases may still be out there. The injections apparently became contaminated with a fungus because the medication was a special preservative-free version. Preservatives in injected medications has been a hot-button issue recently, but in this case one can clearly see the value.