Contaminated Steroid Puts Thousands At Risk For Fungal Meningitis, Death

Twelve and counting. That's the number of people who have died as a result of the contaminated steroid injection produced by a Massachusetts drug compounding company. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimate that as many as 13,000 people may have been injected with the defective drug, leaving open the possibility that the number of people infected with fungal meningitis will increase well beyond the currently known cases.

Methylprednisolone acetate is at the center of the meningitis outbreak. It is a preservative-free steroid injection that was manufactured at the New England Compounding Center (NECC) and was contaminated by a fungus sometime during the compounding process.

As a result of the outbreak, NECC has:

  • Recalled all lots of the injectable steroid that it believes may be infected
  • Recalled all other drugs produced by the compounding center
  • Surrendered its license to operate pending an investigation into the outbreak by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

For many, the damage - the exposure to a fungus that can erupt into fungal meningitis - has already been done. Seventy-five medical facilities in 23 states received a mixture of the defective drug that may or may not be contaminated with the fungus. The incubation period for fungal meningitis is not clearly known; those who may have been exposed and have not yet developed symptoms may still be at risk of developing the fatal infection.

What Is Fungal Meningitis?

The meninges is a system of protective membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord. Meningitis is an inflammation of this membrane. Often meningitis is caused by a bacterial or viral infection; a fungal meningitis infection is much less common.

Fungal meningitis is not contagious, unlike its bacterial or viral counterparts. Symptoms include:

  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Neck stiffness
  • Dizziness and confusion
  • Sensitivity to bright lights

Fungal infections do not tend to be mild. Once a fungus invades the blood stream, clots or bleeds can form, leading to higher risk of stroke.

Fungal meningitis is treatable. The earlier it is diagnosed, the more likely treatment will successfully stop the infection. Treatment will typically include hospital admission because the anti-fungal medication must be administered intravenously (through an IV). The length of treatment depends on each patient. The CDC notes that treatment may last for months.

Who Is At Risk Of Contracting Fungal Meningitis From the Defective Drug?

Twenty-three states received potentially contaminated steroids from the New England Compounding Company. Individuals who received a steroid injection to their spine, typically for back pain, are most at risk. There have been no instances yet of the fungal infection in patients who received a steroid injection in areas other than the lower back.

According to the CDC, the following Florida health care facilities received steroids from the affected lots:

  • In Ocala: Florida Pain Clinic, Marion Pain Management Center, Surgery Center of Ocala
  • In Pensacola: Interventional Rehab Center, Pain Consultants of West Florida
  • In Palm Beach Gardens: North County Surgicenter
  • In Orlando: Orlando Center for Outpatient Surgery
  • In Miami: Surgical Park Center

Tennessee has been the hardest hit by the defective drug with 44 known infections and six deaths. Michigan is next, according to the CDC, with 28 known fungal meningitis cases and three deaths. In Florida, six infections have been reported and one wrongful death has been confirmed as related to the contaminated steroid.

Florida Governor Rick Scott noted that as many as 1,185 patients in Florida may have received the contaminated steroid injection. According to Florida health officials, the only known cases of fungal meningitis linked to the NECC steroid have been in Marion County, but back pain patients in Miami-Dade County, Escambia County and Orange County may also have been exposed but have not yet developed symptoms.

What Can I Do If I Was Exposed?

The first thing you should do if you know or think you might have been exposed to the contaminated steroid is to contact your doctor or health care professional who gave you the injection. He or she should be able to confirm whether or not the steroid injection came from an affected lot.

The CDC and the Florida Department of Health are also contacting individuals directly who are known to have been exposed to fungal meningitis via the defective steroid.

Once you have sought medical assistance, you should contact a personal injury attorney in your area. Drug manufacturers, lab, pharmacies and compound pharmacies must maintain safety protocols when developing, mixing and dosing pharmaceuticals. The FDA does not oversee compounding pharmacies; regulation is left to each state's health pharmacy boards. When safety protocols are breached or simply disregarded, causing injury to innocent patients, the drug company should be held responsible for the damage it causes.

A defective drug attorney in your area can help you evaluate whether pursuing a claim against the NECC, the health care facility or professional who gave you a tainted injection or other party is appropriate if you have been exposed to fungal meningitis. Because of the widespread nature of this outbreak, if a claims fund is established to cover injuries caused by the defective drug, a lawyer can help you assert a claim for compensation.