Fungal Meningitis Outbreak: Should Washington Be Worried?

George Washington University Hospital’s medical director says the disease is not contagious.

By: Travis M. Andrews

The current fungal meningitis outbreak has killed 20 people in the US, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say 247 people have reported infections. The outbreak is linked to contaminated steroid injections created by New England Compounding Center, a specialty pharmacy roughly 20 miles outside of Boston in Framingham, Massachusetts.

Reported cases include 37 in Virginia and 16 in Maryland (none in DC so far). An estimated 14,000 people nationwide are at risk of infection. George Washington University Hospital medical director Dr. Gary Little had a small bit of good news for area residents, though. Unlike viral and bacterial meningitis, the incredibly rare fungal meningitis is not contagious.

“The one good thing is it’s not like this can be spread to other people,” he says. “If you have it or you get sick with it, you’re not going to spread it to your loved ones or friends or coworkers.”

It also doesn’t hurt to know the source of the infection. Little says if you’ve haven’t gotten the specific injection made by the pharmacy—steroid injections, typically administered to people who have back and neck pain—you’ve got an extremely minuscule chance of contracting the disease.

“Fungal meningitis is pretty rare in people with intact immune systems,” says Little. It’s more common in individuals suffering from HIV or AIDS, or undergoing chemotherapy. A healthy immune system keeps the disease pretty much at bay—unless, of course, it’s injected directly into the body.

Like its kin, fungal meningitis comes with a laundry list of symptoms. It begins with feeling fatigued, then progresses to a severe headache, neck stiffness, a sensitivity to light, nausea, vomiting, and fever. “All of that together makes you very concerned for meningitis,” says Little, though the symptoms don’t indicate which type. Bacterial meningitis can easily be fatal, and fungal meningitis has proven the same. Both types escalate quickly from the fairly innocuous initial symptoms. “If you or anyone you know is experiencing those type of symptoms—it doesn’t matter if you’ve never had these types or injections—you should get to a heath-care provider immediately,” Little says.

The outbreak itself is a bit of an anomaly. While Little says “typical outbreaks are a naturally occurring phenomenon,” they are generally contained to a somewhat specific geographic area. For that reason, Little believes the contamination probably occurred at the factory of the New England Compounding Center. “They are making custom products that institutions . . . are ordering,” he says. “Because they’re not making commercially available products, they don’t fall under the same FDA regulations.”

Currently, the FDA and the CDC are investigating the multi-state meningitis outbreak, and the New England Compounding Center has been raided. This is the first national outbreak of fungal meningitis. A complete list of recalled products can be found online.