Fungus Causing Meningitis Outbreak Found in Sealed Steroid Vials

PHOTO: Vials of the injectable steroid product made by New England Compounding Center implicated in a fungal meningitis outbreak.
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Health officials today confirmed that fungus found in sealed vials of injectable steroids is the same fungus contributing to an outbreak of meningitis that has killed 20 people.

The laboratory confirmation further implicates the New England Compounding Center, a compounding pharmacy in Framingham, Mass., in the ongoing outbreak that has sickened 257 people in 16 states.

For a map of cases by state, click here.

It's unclear how the fungus, called Exserohilum rostratum, landed in the sealed vials. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed 26 cases of Exserohilum meningitis, as well as one case each of aspergillus and cladosporium meningitis.

The New England Compounding Center has recalled all its products and shut down operations. Calls to the owners were not immediately returned.

As many as 14,000 patients are thought to have received injections of the tainted steroid, called methylprednisolone acetate, which is commonly used to treat back and joint pain.

Seventy-six clinics in 23 states that received methylprednisolone acetate from the recalled lots have been instructed to notify all affected patients. The "potentially contaminated injections were given starting May 21, 2012," according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For a full list of clinics receiving the recalled lots of spinal steroid injections, click here.

Meningitis affects the membranous lining of the brain and spinal cord. Early symptoms of fungal meningitis -- including headache, fever, dizziness, nausea, sensitivity to light, stiff neck, weakness or numbness, slurred speech and pain, and redness or swelling at the injection site -- can take more than a month to appear.

The longest duration from the time of injection to the onset of symptoms in the current outbreak is 42 days, according to the CDC's Dr. Benjamin Park.

"But we want to emphasize that we don't know what the longest will be," he added, stressing that patients who received injections of the recalled drug should stay attuned to the subtle symptoms "for months."

Fungal meningitis is diagnosed through a spinal tap, which draws cerebrospinal fluid from the spine that can be inspected for signs of the disease. Once detected, it can be treated with high doses of intravenous antifungal medications.

Unlike bacterial meningitis, fungal meningitis is not transmitted from person to person and only people who received the steroid injections are thought to be at risk.

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