Finding meningitis victims before it's too late

Dr. William Schaffner of the Vanderbilt University Hospital in Nashville, Tenn., says the sooner they find patients infected with meningitis, the better the odds of recovery.
CBS News

(CBS News) NASHVILLE - In Ohio, police are searching for victims of the meningitis outbreak. In Tennessee, they're reaching out with a phone bank.

Monday, federal officials estimated 13,000 Americans received steroid injections that may have been contaminated with a potentially lethal fungus. One-hundred-and-five illnesses have been reported across nine states. Eight people have died.

The steroids were used to treat back pain and joint pain. Those who received injection in their spinal columns are at risk for the brain and fungal infection known as meningitis.

Dr. William Schaffner, who has been tracking the outbreak at the Vanderbilt University Hospital in Nashville, Tenn., said the sooner they find the infected, the better the odds of recovery.

"Whether each and every vial was contaminated is not known. But we have an increasing number of patients who are being infected," he said.

Symptoms include: fever, headache, stiff neck and confusion.

Seventy-six facilities in 23 states received the contaminated product, which was shipped from the New England Compounding Center. Injections may have started as early as May 21.

The Centers for Disease Control believes the majority will not get sick; Dr. Schaffner agrees.

"If there is a silver lining, it's that apparently many people were inoculated but the attack rate is very small," he said. "It's

Robert Russell's wife, Janice, is currently battling meningitis.
Robert Russell's wife, Janet, is currently battling meningitis. CBS News

really about 1 percent or less. We hope that that continues."

Robert Russell's wife, Janet, has been fighting meningitis in an intensive care unit for a month. She developed a severe headache about a week after getting an injection for chronic back pain.

"They started doing CAT scans and I'm not so sure they knew what it was at that point, what it was," Russell said. "I don't think they knew it was a few days later when they said, 'yes it's meningitis.'"

The typical incubation period is one to four weeks, but it is unclear how long patients who received the steroid injections will need to wait before they are considered out of the woods.

It's also difficult to predict how many of the patients exposed to the vials will get sick, since doctors don't have a lot of experience dealing with meningitis victims with normal immune systems; usually patients get meningitis after having already compromised immune systems, whether it be from AIDS, cancer or another illness.

  • Jonathan LaPook

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