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Epidemiologist Explains Response To Fungal Meningitis Outbreak

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

  The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services waited five days before it notified the public about the threat of a deadly fungal meningitis outbreak in the fall. Records obtained by the Associated Press provide a glimpse of how state officials deal with emerging health crises.

WFAE's Tasnim Shamma talks to the state's epidemiologist for this follow-up report.  

In late September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services with alarming news. The CDC had tracked the source of a fungal meningitis outbreak to a steroid used to treat back-pain and found three clinics in North Carolina had purchased the contaminated steroid.

Hundreds of patients from those clinics were potentially at risk.  

So Megan Davies, the state's epidemiologist, says the state immediately got in touch with those clinics. They held off on notifying the public.   

"So that Thursday night, we established that three clinics essentially quarantine the medication, the gloves, everything that they used in those procedures so that nobody would be exposed from that point on if those turned out to be the source of the infection," Davies says. 

Davies says the state's next priority was to contact all of the patients who may have received the contaminated steroid, even making house calls to make sure all patients were notified. Once everyone had been notified, the state then felt it could share information with the public without scaring everyone who'd received spinal injections at other clinics.

"It's always a quandary for us," Davies says. "In public health we can always over-react or under-react. We chose to go with the scientific evidence and inform the public at a time when we felt we had something useful to tell them"

She says the state did warn hospitals and physicians the day after the CDC got in touch to be on the look-out for cases of fungal meningitis.

There are a total of five cases of fungal meningitis including one death from the steroid injection in North Carolina as well as 12 others who developed complications from receiving the injection. The compounding pharmacy in Massachusetts that produced the steroid has since closed.