Sunday, December 30, 2012

Michigan hospital blazes trail in fight against fungal meningitis

By Julie Steenhuysen | Reuters – 5 hrs ago

CHICAGO (Reuters) - After his first day working at St Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor hospital's newly created Fungal Outbreak Clinic, Dr David Vandenberg struggled to describe to his boss the enormity of what lay ahead. He settled on a line from the movie Jaws.
"We're going to need a bigger boat," Vandenberg told Dr Lakshmi Halasyamani, chief medical officer of the Michiganhospital, echoing the film's local police chief after he first eyes a 25-foot (7.5-metre) killer shark.
The St Joseph Mercy clinic has been at the front line of the fight against one of the biggest ever U.S. outbreaks of fungal meningitis, a killer infection that has been traced to tainted steroid shots from a Massachusetts pharmacy.
So far, 620 Americans have developed serious infectionsrelated to the outbreak, including 367 cases of deadlymeningitis, and 39 people have died. Of the 19 U.S. states affected, Michigan has been worst hit, handling more than one third of the total cases in the outbreak.
St Joseph Mercy - a 537-bed Catholic hospital located in Ypsilanti, on the doorstep of the University of Michigan - has treated 169 of the state's 223 cases of infections that can cause meningitis, including 7 people who died.
At one point it was so overrun that 87 of its 537 beds, which are usually occupied by patients with cancer or heart ailments and the like, were occupied by patients with fungal meningitis and related infections.
Dr Tom Chiller, the fungal disease expert at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who has been overseeing the outbreak, praised the work of the hospital in helping to limit deaths from the outbreak.
"They have been incredibly creative in dealing with these complicated patients," he said.
In all, almost 14,000 people seeking relief from back and joint pain received injections from moldy steroid shots made at the now-bankrupt New England Compounding Center in Massachusetts before they were recalled in late September.
CDC experts initially feared death rates in the 40 to 50 percent range; instead, only about 6 percent of those infected have died, and the CDC credits the creative and dogged efforts of state and local health officials for keeping the death rates so low.
The first wave of the outbreak involved the most severe cases of meningitis - an inflammation of the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord. But starting in mid-October, patients who had been recovering from meningitis were developing potentially fatal localized infections near the site where contaminated drug was injected to treat back or neck pain.
As they started seeing more cases of these local, secondary infections, the staff at St Joseph's devised a bold plan to screen all patients in their database looking for potential new infections that might have been missed in the first wave.
On December 20, the CDC issued an alert to doctors incorporating some of lessons learned by the efforts of doctors at St Joseph's and other hospitals, calling for increased screening of patients who may be harboring localized infections.
Among the patients who developed secondary infections was Bonita Robbins, a 72-year-old retired nurse from Pinckney, Michigan, who received doses of the tainted drug at the Michigan Pain Specialists clinic in the nearby town of Brighton while seeking relief for lower-back pain.
The first shot brought some relief, the second did little to ease her aches, and the third was contaminated. In October, Robbins went to St Joseph's with a severe headache, back pain and pain in her thighs.
She spent 37 days in the hospital taking two kinds of antifungal drugs.
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