2 more meningitis cases, Marion total now 9


Published: Friday, October 12, 2012 at 2:14 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, October 12, 2012 at 5:52 p.m.

Two more cases of fungal meningitis were reported in Marion County on Friday. That increases the number to nine, including two fatalities.

Facts

State hotline

For information about the fungal meningitis outbreak, call the Florida Department of Health hotline at 1-866-523-7339

Nationally, health officials say 185 patients have been affected in 12 states. The death toll remained at 14 on Friday.

What’s leaving Florida health officials puzzled is why only Marion County is reporting ill and dying patients. Six medical clinics in Florida used the contaminated vials that cause the illness, but only three of those clinics were in Marion County.

“That’s the question we’re looking to answer,” State Surgeon General and Secretary of Health Dr. John Armstrong said during a Friday afternoon teleconference.

The three Ocala clinics are the Florida Pain Clinic, the Surgery Center of Ocala and the Marion Pain Management Center.

The two new cases are women ages 52 and 79. Both are being treated for the infection, and both received their tainted injections at the Marion Pain Management Center.

One of the fatalities, an 83-year-old man who died this week, received his shot at the Marion Pain Management Center.

The other fatality, a 70-year-old man who died in July, received his injection at the Florida Pain Clinic, whose owner disputes the link between the shot and the death.

Officials have not revealed the names of the patients. They have said only that there are three female patients, ages 52-79, and six men, ages 48-87.

According to Armstrong, 775 doses of the suspect steroid vials were injected into patients in Florida. Most of those patients have been contacted, warned of the contamination and encouraged to get medical advice.

The Florida Department of Health’s hotline for anyone concerned about the disease is 1-866-523-7339. Armstrong said his agency has received about 600 calls in the past week.

At issue are tainted lots of methylprednisolone acetate, a steroid used to treat back pain. The contaminated medicine was distributed by the New England Compounding Center (NECC) in Massachusetts.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration are investigating. A Connecticut senator has called on the Justice Department to join in, as well.

Dr. Madeleine Biondolillo, director of health care safety and quality at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, has accused the company of violating a state law that allows compounding pharmacies to only mix drugs after receiving a patient’s specific prescription.

In this case, she said, NECC mass-produced compounded drugs.

As the regulatory and governmental angles play out, victims of the rare outbreak are seeking expert advice — and not just the medical kind.

Law firms are advertising aggressively, reaching out to anyone who has contracted fungal meningitis linked to the contaminated steroid injections.

The first lawsuit connected to the case was filed Thursday in federal court in Minnesota. A woman there said she was injected with the suspect steroid.

The Orlando law firm of Colling Gilbert Wright & Carter said Thursday it already has two clients connected with the nationwide outbreak, including one from Marion. St. Petersburg-based Whittel & Melton said it is preparing to file suit on behalf of clients in Massachusetts.

Both firms have satellite offices in Ocala.

“Anyone who has (the fungal meningitis) symptoms should have a lawyer…They will have a right to compensation,” said Melvin Wright, of Colling Gilbert.

“You’ll probably see more mass marketing (by law firms,) he said. “There are possibly thousands of people that were affected by this.”

Indeed, federal officials estimate 14,000 people may have been injected with the three recalled lots of vials. They were shipped to 76 medical facilities in 23 states.

Wright recommends victims use a law firm that already has clients handling cases connected to the outbreak because “they’ll have more leverage” to secure financial compensation.

Wright expects to file his lawsuits in Florida and not Massachusetts, where the New England Compounding Center (NECC) manufactured the contaminated methylprednisolone acetate.

“Florida law is more fair to consumers than it is in some other states,” he said.

Little is known about the financial resources, or insurance position, of NECC. But Wright said people shouldn’t assume the company is under insured. He also said the company has probably been very financially successful.

Wright said just because people were hiring lawyers doesn’t mean they are overly litigious or looking for a quick buck.

“What would you have them do, suffer in silence? Of course they’re going to hire a lawyer,” he said. “Any lawsuit is considered a frivolous lawsuit until it’s you.”

What will make these lawsuits somewhat unique is the nature of the disease, said Jason Melton of the St. Petersburg law firm.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the fungal meningitis is sometimes difficult to definitively diagnose and that symptoms may take month to present.

“I would be very concerned for anyone that thinks they’re OK,” Melton said, adding that later tests might show infection.

Melton recommends hiring a lawyer for no other reason than to register in the legal system — just in case symptoms emerge long from now.

He said his clients are afraid because of the potentially late onset of symptoms and because so little is known about the fungus associated with the illness.

“One of my clients told me, ‘I’m scared. I don’t know who to believe’ and I don’t know what to tell him,” Melton said.

“I’ve never seen anything like this. There’s a reason this is national news. It’s terrifying for a lot of people.”

Symptoms of the fungal meningitis include fever, new or worsening headache, nausea or a new neurological deficit consistent with a deep brain stroke. Almost all patients have reported headaches and half have reported fever, back pain or nausea, said Dr. J. Todd Weber, incident manager of the multi-state meningitis outbreak for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Reach Fred Hiers at fred.hiers@starbanner.com and 352-397-5914.

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