The number of deaths from a fungal meningitis outbreak linked to recalled epidural steroid injections continues to rise at an alarming rate, with at least 12 confirmed fatalities less than one week after the first news reports on the outbreak surfaced.
As of Thursday morning, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports 137 cases of fungal meningitis diagnosed in connection with contaminated epidural injections distributed by the New England Compounding Center (NECC), of Massachusetts.
The twelfth fungal meningitis death reportedly occurred in Florida yesterday, representing the first confirmed case that resulted in death in that state in association with the outbreak.
Health officials have expressed serious concerns about how high the number of deaths from fungal meningitis from this outbreak may climb, as the CDC has estimated that about 13,000 people received the potentially contaminated injections in 23 states.
The compounding pharmacy at the center of these problems recalled more than 17,000 shots and shut down operations last week, after the outbreak of meningitis was linked to its drugs. The CDC has been issuing daily updates on the number of confirmed cases in the outbreak.
At least two different strains of fungal meningitis have been identified as originating from the compounding pharmacy’s drugs. Not everyone who got a contaminated shot will get sick, the CDC noted.
The recalled epidural steroid injections were shot directly into the spine of patients by hospitals and pain management centers nationwide.
The number of illnesses may rise for some time, since the shots were distributed between May 21, 2012 and were on the market until September 26. It can take up to a month for fungal meningitis to appear in infected persons, meaning illnesses and deaths may continue to pour in through late October.
Fungal meningitis is a type of meningitis that in this case was caused by aspergillius, a common mold that somehow tainted vials of the epidural injections. It causes inflammation of the spinal cord and protective membranes covering the brain. The inflammation generally causes an infection of the fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord and can also be caused by parasites, viruses and bacterial infection.
Individuals with a weakened immune system may be at a particularly high risk of contracting fungal meningitis.
Symptoms of meningitis following an epidural steroid injection may include fever, headache, stiff neck, nausea, vomiting, increased sensitivity to light and mental confusion. Signs of meningitis usually develop within three to seven days after exposure. As the disease progresses, symptoms may become severe, resulting in seizures, coma and death.
To help doctors identify and confirm cases of fungal meningitis from the steroid injections, federal health officials have issued new guidance on diagnosis and treatment, which is designed to allow prompt treatment before the illness causes life-threatening complications.