The fungal meningitis outbreak continues to grow with new cases popping up across the country and here in Tennessee.
A total of 119 people across the country are now infected with a rare, non-contagious fungal meningitis caused by a contaminated steroid pain shot shipped from the New England Compound Center.
Most of the sick patients are in Tennessee and received the injection at the Saint Thomas Outpatient Neurosurgery Center.
The facility voluntarily closed while the Tennessee Department of Health, the CDC and the FDA investigate.
Much of the focus is now on treating those who have fallen ill, a challenge for physicians who are still uncertain exactly what it is they are dealing with.
“This kind of meningitis, in this type of population, inoculated in this fashion is new for all of us,” said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
Fungal meningitis is rare and complicated to treat. Doctors are doing so with anti-fungal medications which can have serious side effects.
“Yes, they’re strong, but they’re also toxic and they can produce damage to other organ systems while we’re trying to treat the meningitis, so it’s a bit of a tight rope,” said Dr. Schaffner.
Health officials remain hopeful patients can fight off the infection and lead a normal life after treatment but they can’t predict that.
“The inflammation produced by these kinds of fungi may be associated with long-term injury to the nerves and parts of the brain so that there may be a long term disability,” Dr. Schaffner told Nashville’s News 2.
Fungal specialists are cautioning against giving the drugs to patients not yet sick in hopes of preventing a more serious illness.
“We wouldn’t want to take a perfectly healthy patient, give them the medication and give them an illness,” said Dr. Schaffner.
Health officials feel certain that patients diagnosed early have the best shot at survival even though treatment could take days, weeks or months.
State health officials say the incubation period has widened and symptoms could take as long as three months to show up.
The main signs to watch for are worsening headache, fever and stiff neck.