Waiting, worrying amid deadly meningitis outbreak

Associated Press Modified: October 6, 2012 at 2:17 pm •  Published: October 6, 2012
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Patsy Bivins tossed and turned all night after finding out the steroid shot she received to ease her chronic back pain could instead threaten her life.

For now, all the 68-year-old retired waitress can do is hope she doesn't develop the telltale signs of a rare form of fungal meningitis that health officials say has sickened more than 60 people in nine states: a splitting headache, fever, stiff neck, difficulty walking or worsening back pain. There may be hundreds or even thousands more like her.

She called her doctors Friday, right after her first cup of coffee, hoping to relieve the anxiety stirred a day earlier when she learned she might be at risk. Bivins was told only that she didn't need to be checked unless she developed symptoms.

"I'm not sure if I like it," Bivins, of Sturgis, Ky., said Friday in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "Seems like there should be some way to tell it before you get the symptoms. Honestly, it makes me worse than I was."

Federal health officials say seven people have died so far, and they fear thousands more could have been exposed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said the outbreak may have been caused by a steroid made by a specialty pharmacy in Massachusetts, where inspectors found at least one sealed vial that was contaminated. It's not yet clear how the fungus got into the steroid, which is commonly used to treat back pain. But officials have told health professionals not to use anything made by the pharmacy.

So far, the government has identified about 75 facilities in 23 states that received the recalled doses. It is not yet clear exactly how many people could get sick, though health officials say the fungus is not transmitted from person to person.

The CDC has called for clinics and doctors to immediately identify those who could have been exposed between July 1 and Sept. 28. It could be weeks before any of the patients are in the clear.

"Sure I'm apprehensive, but there's not a thing I can do except wait and see what happens," said Richard Jenkins, an 81-year-old from Nashville who received his most recent shot Sept. 11 at the Saint Thomas Outpatient Neurology Surgery Center.

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