ATLANTA: In the wake of the fungal meningitis outbreak that has led to 12 deaths, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is focusing on reaching those who are possibly infected and encouraging patients to continue preventative treatments.
Nearly 140 people nationwide have reportedly contracted fungal meningitis and more than 13,000 have been exposed in 23 states.
To get the word out about the outbreak, the federal agency is performing media outreach and using social media channels, an informational phone line, and performing conference calls with clinicians. It also created an informational website that is updated regularly.
The CDC said it believes most of those exposed have been contacted, and it is now encouraging those it has reached to get tested for the infection.
On the other end of the messaging spectrum, the CDC has also worked to get people to continue to receive medical care. Steroid injections are a common treatment for lower back pain and are seen as a good alternative to narcotics for people with chronic pain, physicians say.
“We have to have balanced messaging; we don't want to scare people away from seeking preventive healthcare,” said Abbigail Tumpey, associate director for communications science in the division of healthcare quality promotion at CDC.
The CDC has seen this happen first-hand. For instance, an investigation found that in 2008, the Endoscopy Center of Nevada had exposed patients to hepatitis through anesthesia by injection. After the CDC began to notify those potentially infected, it noticed a drop in colon exams in the following years.
As the federal agency continues its outreach, communications staffers said the CDC may be entering unprecedented territory.
“I'm not aware of an instance in which we needed to perform patient notifications over such a large geographic spread,” said Tumpey. “Maybe one or two states, but this is really something different.”
She added that this outbreak is also troubling because the infection is more dangerous than many of the blood-related ailments the CDC often notifies people about. Meningitis cases in the US are usually either bacterial or viral in nature, but not fungal.
Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration has focused its outreach on relaying the findings from its investigation into the outbreak's scope, said Erica Jefferson, a deputy director in the FDA office of public affairs. It has distributed information via its website as well as through media outreach, she said.
The contaminated doses of steroids reportedly originated from the New England Compounding Center. The organization has worked with O'Neill and Associates following the outbreak.
Calls to the contact number on press releases were greeted by a recorded message in which the agency says its staff members are not medical professionals and therefore cannot offer health advice. Attempts to reach the agency via other channels were not successful.
The New England Compounding Center's trade group, the International Academy of Compounding Pharmacists, has spent the last week “clarifying information regarding pharmacy compounding, how it's regulated, and how to evaluate a compounding pharmacy before engaging one,” said Dagmar Climo, its director of communications.
She declined to say if the trade group has brought on agency support as it responds to an onslaught of media calls.