In what is now considered to be one of the largest healthcare-related crises in the U.S., the victims of a fungal meningitis outbreak caused by tainted steroid injections continue to struggle with lingering illnesses and antifungal medication side effects a year later. Out of the 750 people who suffered from the fungal meningitis outbreak that occurred last September, 64 have been killed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The tainted injections were traced back to the New England Compounding Company (NECC) in Massachusetts, which has since recalled its products and closed its doors – though it blamed its cleaning company UniFirst for the outbreak.
“I would say that the majority of patients have not returned to their previous level of functioning,” Dr. David Vandenberg, head of the fungal outbreak clinic at Saint Joseph Mercy Health System in Ann Arbor, Michigan, told ABC News.
Three lots of methylprednisolone acetate (MPA) products from NECC were tainted with fungus because the company’s “clean rooms,” which are meant to be sterile, in fact contained bacteria and fungi. Doctors who administered the injection to patients didn’t notice the fungus because the injection appears cloudy to begin with. The CDC investigation into the outbreak began about a year ago, in September 2012, and researchers eventually began to piece together that many of the victims experienced problems other than simply meningitis – new data shows that 324 patients had spinal infections, and 151 had both spinal infections and meningitis. A few others had a joint infection or a stroke.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fungal meningitis is a rare disease that is not contagious. It involves the spread of a fungus through the blood to the spinal cord – usually if the fungus has been introduced directly into the central nervous system. Meningitis occurs when the protective membranes of the brain and spinal cord, called the meninges, become inflamed and can be caused by bacteria, viruses, and even certain drugs. Meningitis is considered a medical emergency.
"It's like I've been handed down a jail sentence of life," Jona Angst, a survival of the illness, told ABC News. "Because we'll always have to worry about it." Angst, like many of the other victims who suffered from chronic back pain, chose to have steroids injected into her spine to help soothe her pinched nerves, but the medicine injected turned out to be tainted with the fungus. The antifungal medications she was given to fight her infection caused hallucinations and felt like “having lava shot through your veins,” she told ABC News. Angst continues to experience stomach issues and mental sluggishness, and struggles to find a job, noting that her back pain is even worse now than it was before.
Though the outbreak spurred state and federal government to tighten regulations on compounding pharmacies, a minority of the survivors still have not returned to their normal lives. Dirk Thompson, a 58-year-old who was infected with the fungal meningitis as well, told NBC News that he is still uncertain if he and the other victims will ever be cured. “We’re all guinea pigs and the experiment is not yet over with,” he said.