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Staff work flat out on meningitis outbreak

16th October 2012

Staff at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are working flat out amid a rare outbreak of fungal meningitis.

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Scientists peer at samples of fungus through microscopes, while others prepare DNA samples for testing that will confirm the presence of the fungus, which has proved deadly for at least 15 people and sent more than 200 to hospitals in 14 states.

In the outbreak's center of operations, employees speak to doctors, potential patients and health officials by phone, offering advice.

Dozens are currently employed in controlling the outbreak, in a bid to save further lives by ensuring that those infected from contaminated pain injections get treatment early.

Their target, however, is not a virus. The fungal form of meningitis cannot even spread between people.

However, it has been isolated to a single known source; contaminated steroid injections produced at the New England Compounding Center in Framingham, Massachussetts.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has warned doctors not to use any of the company's products.

According to CDC medical epidemiologist John Jernigan, fungal meningitis is a very unusual thing to catch.

He said the team was learning as they went along what treatment or diagnostic recommendations to make to healthcare providers on the front line.

Meningitis itself, an inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord, is not uncommon, but it is usually caused by bacteria. It is also seldom seen in patients with normal immune systems.

The fungus that caused this outbreak is found in soil and grass, but people rarely get ill from it, even though they come into contact with it frequently.

It has never before been identified as the cause of meningitis.

Now, officials think they may have succeeded in contacting around 90% of people who may have been affected by the recent outbreak.

They are warning recipients of pain injections from the CECC that any symptoms they experience should not be ignored, and warning them to be on the lookout for symptoms, which can include a severe headache, dizziness, fever and a feeling of nausea.

It is hard to predict how the fungus will affect an individual, however, with some people experiencing only mild symptoms and others having strokes and excruciating headaches.

Those potentially affected have been tracked down using maps that plot the distribution of medical supplies from the pharmacy in Massachussetts, while staff keep tally of the number of confirmed cases.

Meanwhile, CDC's research labs are working overtime and weekends in order to clear a backlog of samples from  possible patients around the country.

The fungus has never been found in cerebrospinal fluid before, and new tests had to be developed before the labs could verify new cases.

According to research lab team leader Ana Litvintseva, staff are working on a much larger scale than would normally be expected of them, testing samples "non-stop".


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