The infected tally continues to rise for the fungal meningitis outbreak that has swept part of the country in the last months, including in Illinois. For those unfamiliar with the situation, earlier this year the New England Compounding Center sent thousands of vials of a spinal steroid to clinics that were infected with a fungus. All told, nearly 14,000 injections using those contaminated products were then given to unsuspecting patients at the clinics. As a result, hundreds of patients eventually developed a rare, and life-threatening form of fungal meningitis. Meningitis is an inflammation of certain protective membranes around the brain and spinal cord.
According to the most recent statistics published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), at least 480 people have been infected with the fungal meningitis since the outbreak began. On top of that, a shocking 33 people have died because of the situation. Those deaths are largely attributable to complications which themselves were triggered by the meningitis–most notabley, strokes. So far, at least two of the infected parties were located in Illinois. As we previously noted, three different clinics in Chicago and Illinois were known to have given out the infected drugs.
Many regulators, policymakers, and other involved parties continue to look into every aspect of the situation to determine how the problem arose and what, if anything, can be done to ensure that it never happens again. Most of the basics are known: the contamination was caused by problems at the New England Compounding Center (NECC). The NECC had a history of sanitation and sterilization issues, which ultimately led to it shipping out these dangerous products. In fact, the company’s license from the state did not even technically allow it to make this mass shipment. The NECC was not supposed to make bulk quantities of these drugs for sale. Instead, their mission should have been limited to filling specific prescriptions orders.
Obviously at some point along the way the company branched out into other areas, likely because of their ability to turn a profit. And it remains unclear how the company was able to do this without being sanctioned by those charged with regulating the industry.
Those questions were recently asked by members of Congress who are trying to learn more about what happened here. According to a recent NBC article, FDA officials recently sent a letter to Congress admitting that knowledge of compounding facilities across the country like the NECC is sparse. The federal regulators have little information about where these companes are located, how they operate, and how strict the oversight is from state officials. That is because the regulation of these entities falls almost exclusively on the states. Some states have very tight rules while others are far more lax. The states also vary considerably in the extent to which violations are punished.
In the case of the NECC, there were several documented vioaltions and problems at the facility over the past decade. Yet, those documented problems notwithstanding, the state never moved to shut the facility down or otherwise ensure that the pharmacy did not place more patients in harm’s way.
It is unclear exactly what will happen in the coming months, but the introduction of new federal legislation to better monitor the industry is likely. The exact shape of that legislation is unknown, however, as most members of Congress are still collecting information on the overall scope of the problem before moving forward.
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New Case of Fungal Meningitis in Illinois