New Fungal Meningitis Cases and Spinal Infections Continue to Baffle Doctors

The meningitis outbreak continues to baffle doctors as new cases emerge.

ByABC News
December 11, 2012, 4:27 PM

Dec. 12, 2012— -- When Harold Rye came home from his 18-day hospital stay to treat the fungal meningitis he got from a tainted steroid injection, he said he didn't feel any better than he did the day doctors admitted him with the deadly inflammatory disease.

The 73-year-old retired mechanic said he felt weaker with each passing day at home, and two weeks after he was discharged from the hospital, his doctor called him to say that other fungal meningitis patients had come down with secondary spinal infections, or abscesses, and he might have one too.

"They found it on my backbone, and it had gone down to my hips," Rye said.

The discovery of the fungus-and-pus-filled abscess would land Rye back in the hospital for another 25 days and require two more surgeries. Although Rye was discharged on Dec. 5, his journey back to health is far from over. Rye's wife will have to give him intravenous medication three times a day for the next several weeks, and he'll have to swallow a dozen pills a day for the next three to six months.

"It was very scary," he said, adding that his wife was by his side all 45 days in the hospital. She never complained, but one day she lay down on the edge of his bed and cried. "I could feel her sobbing, and she said, 'It just isn't fair.' I know she went through heck with it. She was there with me every minute of the time."

It's been more than a month since the 42-day risk period for contracting fungal meningitis from tainted steroid injections ended on Nov. 7, but new meningitis cases, spinal infections and other complications continue to arise, even for patients who have already been treated and sent home.

"Here's the perplexing issue," said Dr. Tom Chiller, the deputy chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's mycotic diseases branch. "Why are we getting people that early on who are presenting with rip-roaring meningitis, but now, they're presenting 100 days later with focal infections only? Why the difference? We don't know."

The CDC reported five new meningitis cases, 39 new spinal infections without meningitis, and three new joint infections within the past week. One more person has died over the same time period, bringing the death toll to 37.

Up to 14,000 people received the tainted injections produced at New England Compounding Center in Framingham, Mass, which recalled all products and shut down on Oct. 6. It is now being investigated by the Food and Drug Administration, even though its oversight usually falls under its state's pharmacy board's jurisdiction. NECC's owner Bill Cadden invoked the Fifth Amendment and declined to answer questions before Congress on Nov. 14.

Click here to read our fungal meningitis timeline.

It's not clear how the fungus got in the steroid vials, but an FDA investigation revealed that a quarter of the steroid vials in an NECC bin contained "greenish black foreign matter," according to an FDA form released Oct. 26. The form went on to identify several clean rooms -- where sterile products are produced -- that had either mold or bacterial overgrowths.

The longest fungal infection incubation period the CDC recorded to date was 120 days, Chiller said. However, the longest incubation period from a previous fungal meningitis outbreak was 152 days.

"We hope that's the exception, not the rule," Chiller said. "We hope we're nearing the end of this."