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Meningitis Outbreak Linked to Steroid Kills Five People

Meningitis Outbreak Linked to Steroid Threatens Thousands
Dr. Robert Latham, chief of medicine at Saint Thomas Hospital in Nashville, Tenn., is interviewed on Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012. Latham said a fifth person has died in a growing outbreak of a rare form of meningitis that has sickened more than two dozen people in five U.S. states. Photographer: AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

A meningitis outbreak traced to a contaminated steroid used for back pain killed five people and threatens thousands more, U.S. health officials said.

The New England Compounding Center, a Framingham, Massachusetts-based pharmacy, supplied the steroid found to be tainted with a fungus, Ilisa Bernstein of the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research said yesterday. The steroid, methylprednisolone acetate, was shipped to 75 facilities in 23 states from July to September, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Meningitis is an inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord usually caused by an infection from a virus or bacteria. Forty-seven people in seven states -- Florida, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia -- have contracted fungal meningitis and five have died after receiving steroid injections in their backs, the CDC said today in a statement. The fungal illness is not contagious and can be treated with medication, the Atlanta-based agency said.

“All patients who may have received these medications need to be tracked down immediately,” Benjamin Park, medical officer of the CDC’s Mycotic Diseases Branch, said in the statement. Lives may be saved if they are put on antifungal therapy, he said.

The agency and state health departments today released a list of the 75 health-care centers that received the contaminated product.

Expanded Warning

“Out of an abundance of caution, we advise all health-care practitioners not to use any product” manufactured by the Massachusetts pharmacy, Bernstein said yesterday.

The pharmacy recalled 17,676 single-dose vials, Omar Cabrera, community health education manager with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, said in an e-mail. The company is a compounding pharmacy, which means it custom mixes versions of medications in ways that generally aren’t otherwise available for sale.

“As previously announced, we have voluntarily suspended operations while we assist authorities in this investigation,” the company said in a statement. “The fatalities and illnesses confirmed today by the CDC and FDA are tragic. The thoughts and prayers of everyone employed by NECC are with those who have been affected.”

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