A shot intended to alleviate pain is not only failing to deliver relief, it is killing many and causing extreme anxiety in thousands of others. The recent outbreak of fungal meningitis traced to tainted steroid shots has killed 24 people and sickened more than 300 others across the country.

But because the fungus is slow-growing, thousand of others who may also be infected must wait three months before knowing whether they'll come down with the deadly disease as well. It is an agonizing, stress-inducing wait.

The Wait is on

“I'm freaked out about this," explained Carol Scott, a lawyer, to the Los Angeles Times. Her mother received a tainted injection two months ago and must now wait another month before knowing she is safe from developing the disease.

Another patient, Patsy Bivins, of Sturgis, Kentucky, also told the LA Times, “I don't really eat a whole lot and I don't sleep now because I'm worried sick." She received a notice from the hospital seven weeks ago warning her that she is still at risk of developing the rare form of meningitis and should report headaches to her doctor.

Complicating Factors

Adding to the stress are recent reports of various patients who were initially cleared, only to be diagnosed with the disease weeks later. One patient from Michigan, whose wife died in September from fungal meningitis, just announced that he is now being treated at the hospital for the disease after an earlier spinal tap revealed no evidence. He originally received the tainted shot for neck and back pain.

Also catching physicians off-guard is the fact that the fungus is extremely rare. “…its name doesn't even appear in any medical school texts," notes Dr. William Schaffner of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville.

The Food and Drug Administration has traced the tainted shots to the New England Compounding Center in Massachusetts. The center is now closed. Vials of the drug, originally indicated for back pain and administered via a needle directly into patients' spines, were somehow contaminated by a black mold known as Exserohilum, with two other fungi known as Aspergillus and Cladosporium linked to two other cases.

Meningitis Warning Signs

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has issued an alert to anyone who received a steroid shot that originated from the New England facility since July. They are urged to contact a physician if any of the following symptoms appear:

  1. Worsening headaches
  2. Fever
  3. Light sensitivity
  4. Stiff neck
  5. Slurred speech
  6. Weakness or numbness in any body parts

The CDC reports that this type of fungal meningitis is not contagious.

For general information about meningitis, the CDC suggests contacting the poison control hotline at 1-800-222-1222.

And for those in Tennessee, the hardest hit area, health officials have begun operating a mental health hotline to support patients and their families deal with the agonizing stress of having to wait three months before knowing they are not going to get sick. That number is 1-855-274-7471 or 1-855-CRISIS-1.

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