By Carol Gentry
10/24/12 © Health News Florida
As three more cases of fungal meningitis were confirmed in Florida on Wednesday, bringing the case count to 22, the state's top health official said the number of patients who were placed at risk by contaminated steroid injections was considerable: 1,038.
But the good news, issued Wednesday by the CDC, is that they won't have to fret forever.
In new guidelines for clinicians, the disease detectives said the greatest risk of contracting serious illness was within six weeks of receiving a steroid injection from New England Compounding Center. The risk drops to about 1 percent after that, they said on the web site.
Since the three tainted lots of methylprednisolone acetate were recalled on Sept. 26, the six-week period of greatest risk for those exposed to it should be over in about two more weeks. Doctors should keep close watch on the patients during the six-week window, CDC said.
In a press call, Surgeon General John Armstrong noted that some of the Florida patients became ill even after the six-week window. He urged both doctors and patients to be vigilant.
Symptoms of fungal meningitis include fever, headache, stiff neck, nausea, confusion and sensitivity to light.
Three Floridians have died in the outbreak, which began in the summer but was not discovered until September. Since then, NECC has recalled all its products and shut down, under pressure from Massachusetts health authorities and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
All of those stricken so far in Florida got the drug through injections in the spine or a joint at pain clinics in Pensacola and Ocala.
Public health officials are trying to reassure the public that only a tiny fraction of those exposed to the fungus have become ill, that this form of meningitis is not contagious, and that the epidural injections given in childbirth are not the same as the ones that were contaminated.
More than 200 hospitals and clinics in the state received NECC products, but it appears that the tainted steroids were injected into patients at just six clinics in the state, DOH says.
State and county public health workers are making sure that all patients are being given medical follow-up.
"We will reach out to all patients who have received injections," Armstrong said. "We want to make sure people are aware of their risk."
The three cases announced Wednesday involved a 60-year-old man and 36-year-old woman who were treated at the Pain Consultants of West Florida in Escambia County, and a 50-year-old man who went to Marion Pain Management Center in Ocala.
Nationwide, the case count is 308 in 17 states, with 23 deaths, CDC said.
DOH has set up a toll-free hotline at 1-866-523-7339. CDC offers an extensive patient-information site.
--Health News Florida, journalism for a healthy state, is a service of WUSF Public Media. Question? Comment? Contact Carol Gentry at 813-974-8629 or 727-410-3266 or by e-mail at Carol.Gentry@HealthNewsFlorida.org.