Just days after George Cary buried his wife, one of the 24 fatalities connected to the multistate fungal meningitis outbreak, he underwent a painful spinal tap to see if he had the same infection. Doctors reassured him his tests came back negative for the fungus. But Friday, he developed a severe headache, and is now hospitalized and being treated with antifungal medications.
Cary and his wife are among the more than 300 people who became sick after receiving steroid injections that were contaminated with a fungus. The steroid shots, commonly used for back pain, were made by New England Compounding Center (NECC). Nearly 18,000 shots were distributed to medical facilities in 23 states. About 14,000 people were exposed to the fungus beginning in late May.
Contaminated shots that were injected into the spinal cord or neck to treat neck or back pain have caused some people to develop fungal meningitis, stroke due to presumed fungal meningitis, or other central nervous system-related infection.
Some patients who received the contaminated shots in joints such as the elbow, knee, shoulder or hip, have experienced peripheral joint infections. No deaths have been associated with peripheral joint infections.
Meningitis is a life threatening infection of the membrane surrounding the brain and spinal cord. The infection is most often caused by bacteria or viruses. Fungal meningitis is extremely rare, which made it difficult to diagnose the first patients who became ill.
The infection can be treated with antifungal medications, but the drugs can be hard on the body. Thus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is recommending that doctors not give patients antifungal medications unless they show symptoms or test positive for the infection. If left untreated, meningitis can cause permanent neurological damage or death.
To date, 24 people have died from fungal infections linked to the steroid shots.
NECC has recalled the tainted steroid shots as well as all other products compounded at the pharmacy, and has ceased operations as federal officials conduct an investigation. Cary and others who have been infected by or lost a loved one to the contaminated steroid injections have filed lawsuits against NECC.