Fungal meningitis scare has many people worried

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - A nationwide outbreak of fungal meningitis linked to epidural steroid shots for back pain, is now blamed for 297 illnesses in 16 states, and 23 deaths. And while none of the contaminated injections made their way to Mississippi, patients are still concerned.

Doctors on the coast continue to get bombarded with phone calls and questions, with some patients even canceling their appointments.

Dr. Joe Chen, MD, is a pain management specialist and anesthesiologist. On an average day, he gives more than 20 of the steroid injections to help patients in need of pain relief.

"We put steroids in people to help alleviate pain. Greater than 70 million Americans suffer chronic pain, so that's one in four."

He added that it's even more prevalent on the coast because of "the large retired population, and as we age we develop a lot of back pain."

In recent weeks he's been getting a lot of questions about those injections from his patients.

"I've been doing injections all day long today, and I think almost every one of my patients has asked me that question, 'Are you using the medication that's been in the news?'"

The steroid injections continue to make headlines almost daily as more cases keep cropping up. Some of the latest were in neighboring Alabama, from patients who had the injections in Tennessee. But Dr. Chen says patients who receive the shots in Mississippi have nothing to worry about.

"I just alleviate their fears and say, 'No, we're not using that here.' None of the facilities I know of are in the state of Mississippi."

Criminal investigators, along with the FDA and CDC, continue with their investigation into the New England Compounding Center in Massachusetts (NECC) that manufactured the contaminated product. Dr. Chen says the NECC products don't follow the same strict guidelines as the sources he uses.

"The meds we order are FDA regulated. It's very stringent how they are monitored. And the case in the news, well, that wasn't the case."

As far as the latest on the contaminated NECC product, investigators are now trying to determine which patients who received it might be at greatest risk. A new finding shows that one of the three lots in question is causing the most damage.

Fourteen thousand people received the tainted pain shots. And since the incubation period is anywhere from a few days to a few months, many of those patients are still at risk.

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