CDC fights to halt deadly outbreak


Shawn Lockhart looks at the meningitis-causing fungus Exserohilum rostratum at a lab at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. (The Associated Press)

Published: Wednesday, October 17, 2012 at 1:14 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, October 17, 2012 at 1:14 p.m.

Atlanta

Scattered across the carefully landscaped main campus of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are the staff on the front lines fighting a rare outbreak of fungal meningitis: A scientist in a white lab coat peers through a microscope at fungi on a glass slide. In another room, another researcher uses what looks like a long, pointed eye dropper to suck up DNA samples that will be tested for the suspect fungus.

Not far away in another building is the emergency operations center, which is essentially the war room. There's a low hum of voices as employees work the phones, talking to health officials, doctors and patients who received potentially contaminated pain injections believed to be at the root of the outbreak. Workers sit at rows of computers, gathering data, advising doctors and reaching out to thousands of people who may have been exposed. Overall, dozens of people are working day and night to bring the outbreak under control. More than 200 people in 14 states have been sickened, including 15 who have died.

There is a sense of urgency — people are dying, and lives could be saved if those who are sickened get treated in time. But it's not a race against a fast-spreading illness like avian flu or SARS — or even the fictional virus the CDC fails to unravel in the popular TV series "The Walking Dead."

Unlike those outbreaks, this strain of meningitis isn't contagious and doesn't spread between people. It is likely isolated to the contaminated steroid, produced by the New England Compounding Center in Framingham, Mass.

"This is a very unusual infection," said Dr. John Jernigan, a CDC medical epidemiologist who is leading the clinical investigation team for the outbreak response. "So, treatment recommendations, diagnostic recommendations are all going to be new, and we're learning as we go on this one."

Meningitis, an inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord, is not uncommon. But it is usually caused by bacteria, and it is very unusual to see it in patients with normal immune systems, Jernigan said. This strain is caused by a fungus that is common in dirt and grasses — people routinely come into contact with it without getting sick — but it has never before been identified as the cause of meningitis.

By Friday morning, officials believed they had reached about 90 percent of those who were potentially affected, Jernigan said. The CDC says many of the cases have been mild, but some people had strokes.

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