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Second illness infects fungal meningitis patients

NYT:  Just when they might have thought they were in the clear, people recovering from meningitis in an outbreak caused by a contaminated steroid drug have been struck by a second illness.
/ Source: The New York Times

Just when they might have thought they were in the clear, people recovering from meningitis in an outbreak caused by a contaminated steroid drug have been struck by a second illness.

The new problem, called an epidural abscess, is an infection near the spine at the site where the drug — contaminated by a fungus — was injected to treat back or neck pain. The abscesses are a localized infection, different from meningitis, which affects the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord. But in some cases, an untreated abscess can cause meningitis. The abscesses have formed even while patients were taking powerful antifungal medicines, putting them back in the hospital for more treatment, often with surgery,

The problem has just begun to emerge, so far mostly in Michigan, which has had more people sickened by the drug — 112 out of 404 nationwide — than any other state.

“We’re hearing about it in Michigan and other locations as well,” said Dr. Tom M. Chiller, the deputy chief of the mycotic diseases branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “We don’t have a good handle on how many people are coming back.”

He added, “We are just learning about this and trying to assess how best to manage these patients. They’re very complicated."

In the last few days, about a third of the 53 patients treated for meningitis at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ann Arbor, Mich., have returned with abscesses, said Dr. Lakshmi K. Halasyamani, the chief medical officer.

“This is a significant shift in the presentation of this fungal infection, and quite concerning,” she said. “An epidural abscess is very serious. It’s not something we expected.”

She and other experts said they were especially puzzled that the infections could occur even though patients were taking drugs that, at least in tests, appeared to work against the fungus causing the infection, a type of black mold called Exserohilum.

The main symptom is severe pain near the injection site. But the abscesses are internal, with no visible signs on the skin, so it takes an M.R.I. scan to make the diagnosis. Some patients have more than one abscess. In some cases, the infection can be drained or cleaned out by a neurosurgeon.

But sometimes fungal strands and abnormal tissue are wrapped around nerves and cannot be surgically removed, said Dr. Carol A. Kauffman, an expert on fungal diseases at the University of Michigan. In such cases, all doctors can do is give a combination of antifungal drugs and hope for the best. They have very little experience with this type of infection.

Some patients have had epidural abscesses without meningitis; St. Joseph Mercy Hospital has had 34 such cases.

A spokesman for the health department in Tennessee, which has had 78 meningitis cases, said that a few cases of epidural abscess had also occurred there, and that the state was trying to assess the extent of the problem.

Dr. Chiller said doctors were also reporting that some patients exposed to the tainted drug had arachnoiditis, a nerve inflammation near the spine that can cause intense pain, bladder problems and numbness.

“Unfortunately, we know from the rare cases of fungal meningitis that occur, that you can have complicated courses for this disease, and it requires prolonged therapy and can have some devastating consequences,” he said.

The meningitis outbreak, first recognized in late September, is one of the worst public health disasters ever caused by a contaminated drug. So far, 29 people have died, often from strokes caused by the infection. The case count is continuing to rise. The drug was a steroid, methylprednisolone acetate, made by the New England Compounding Center in Framingham, Mass. Three contaminated lots of the drug, more than 17,000 vials, were shipped around the country, and about 14,000 people were injected with the drug, mostly for neck and back pain. But some received injections for arthritic joints and have developed joint infections.

Inspections of the compounding center have revealed extensive contamination. It has been shut down, as has another Massachusetts company, Ameridose, with some of the same owners. Both companies have had their products recalled.

Compounding pharmacies, which mix their own drugs, have had little regulation from either states or the federal government, and several others have been shut down recently after inspections found sanitation problems.

This article, 'Second Illness is Infecting Those Struck by Meningitis,' first appeared in the New York Times.