The fungal meningitis outbreak has taken the nation by surprise and it shows no signs of slowing. As of this week, contaminated steroid treatments have sickened nearly 250 people and 19 of those cases were fatal. These numbers will become outdated quickly as states report more cases every day.
Health officials traced the outbreak to an infected batch of a steroid used to treat back pain. As the infections and deaths continue to accumulate, a wave of medical litigation appears certain. Authorities have not yet announced what caused the contamination but it almost certainly involves negligence or sloppiness on the part of the manufacturer, the New England Compounding Center.
After federal agents searched the compounding facility this week, the Food and Drug Administration is now warning that the contamination might affect other drugs. It sent a list of 131,000 shipping invoices to various state health agencies. The FDA appears to be most concerned about drugs used for open-heart surgeries, eye operations, and other spinal injections.
This broader warning probably reflects fears about the compounding facility's operations. It is very important to manufacture these drugs in a completely sterile environment-some steroids and other drugs cannot include preservatives which makes them very vulnerable to contamination. If employees did not follow sterilization and hygiene best practices to the letter, they could easily have caused this fatal outbreak.
Whatever the precise cause, a further investigation will almost certainly point to deadly mistakes on the part of this company or its employees. Meningitis victims should act to hold the manufacturer accountable for allowing this outbreak to occur.
Source: New York Times, "New Scrutiny of Company That Made Tainted Drug," Denise Grady and Abby Goodnough, Oct. 17, 2012