Secondary infections plague meningitis outbreak patients

(CBS News) - The meningitis outbreak claimed two more lives in the past week.

The tainted steroid produced by the New England Compounding Center has infected 496 people in 19 states. The latest deaths bring the toll to 36.

But now fears of secondary infections in survivors are looming.

Brenda Bansale,46, was among the first who got meningitis. She spent fifteen days at a hospital in Michigan.

"I freaked out," Bansale said. "I started writing more or less the final letter to my husband and to my sons. It was hard."

Bansale is now part of a second wave of patients who are developing additional infections following their bout with meningitis. She has a dangerous abscess around the steroid injection site in her back. Doctors believe the abscess is caused by the same fungus that's been causing meningitis.

"I'm angry," she said. "I'm scared. I'm frustrated."

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Doctors at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital have treated 54 patients for meningitis and 81 for abscesses.

Some of the infected steroid goes up the spinal canal to the brain and causes meningitis, but some of it stays right there at the injection site and causes an infection. The body tries to wall off than infection, creating what is called an abscess. The problem with an abscess is that the wall can be so thick that it's tough for antibiotics to get through it. The abscess has to be cut out, but its proximity to important nerves increase the danger that they could be damaged with a knife.

Neurosurgeon Geoffrey Thomas and his team are finding patients who are infected even though they don't have any symptoms.

"These abscesses that are near the spinal canal have the ability to erode into the area where the spinal fluid is and become meningitis, which is much more serious," Thomas said.

The state sent in an emergency mobile MRI, a medical imaging unit, to screen patients. The hospital has added 25 nurses. St. Joseph Mercy is calling 600 patients, urging them to be screened.

David Earles received an ankle injection in September and got tested today.

"Hopefully this MRI that I'm scheduled for today will put me in the clear," he said.

He didn't get the answer he was hoping for. Doctors found an abscess, meaning Earles was positive for infection.

"This is a brand new disease," Thomas said. "This is a fungus that is not supposed to be there. A lot of what we're doing is a little bit trial and error.


  • Jonathan LaPook

    Dr. Jonathan LaPook is the medical correspondent for the CBS Evening News. Follow him on Twitter at @DrLaPook

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