Questions remain nearly a year after fungal meningitis outbreak

It has been a close to a year since the deadly fungal meningitis outbreak that was tied to a Massachusetts drug compounding pharmacy, but health officials still aren’t sure how long the disease will continue to take new victims. Doctors also aren’t sure how exactly to deal with the illness, which is caused by a bacteria usually found in plants, not humans.

The September 2012 outbreak was traced to tainted steroid injections that were distributed by New England Compounding Center, of Framingham, which is currently facing hundreds of personal injury lawsuits. So far, about 700 out of 14,000 people who received the tainted injections have become sick, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and new cases are still showing up.

A total of 63 people have died from the illnesses, the CDC recently confirmed, and 24 of the deaths occurred in 2013. Many of the people who became ill have been struggling for months with the symptoms resulting from the fungal meningitis itself as well as the treatments being used to fight it.

Perhaps what’s scariest is that because the type of bacteria involved in the outbreak is usually found in plants, doctors don’t know exactly what to expect as the illnesses runs its course through victims. One man who received one of the tainted NECC steroid injections to treat back pain said his doctor doesn’t know when he will be cured.

The outbreak caused national concern over the lax regulation that applies to drug compounding companies, which custom-mix large batches of medications. Unlike drug manufacturers, these compounding companies are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

A new bill has been proposed in the Senate that would require large drug compounding companies to fall under FDA regulation, but even if the bill is approved, it could take months or even years before it is enforced.

So far this year, the FDA has reported 14 voluntary recalls of drugs distributed by compounding pharmacies. There were only two of such recalls in 2012 and zero before that, which suggests that the industry itself may be taking more caution.

Even so, an FDA spokeswoman said that until the FDA has more “effective and appropriate oversight of the pharmacy compounding industry … we will continue to see tragedies that may have been prevented in the future.”

Source: Wall Street Jounral, “Dangers From Compounding Pharmacies Persist,” Timothy W. Martin, Sept. 9, 2013