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Rare US meningitis outbreak spreads

At least five people dead and 47 sickened with fungal meningitis after being injected with contaminated pain medication.
Last modified: 6 Oct 2012 13:27
The pharmacy is currently being investigated for producing a contaminated steroid shot [AFP]

As I write this, at least five people are dead and 47 others have been diagnosed with Meningitis in the US after being injected with contaminated pain medications.

America’s Meningitis outbreak has spread to seven US states. It’s believed all the patients have one thing in common – they were injected with a contaminated pain medicine used to treat chronic back pain.

Compound medicines 

But, it’s not just the medication that’s under scrutiny, it’s also where the medication was made that has public health officials concerned. That’s because the injected drugs were created in what’s called a compound pharmacy. They’re private pharmacies that often make medicines that are hard to find.

In this latest Meningitis outbreak, it’s suspected the pain medications were contaminated by an airborne fungus during the mixing process at a private compound pharmacy in the northeastern state of Massachusetts. It's not the first time Americans have become ill from products mixed by a compound pharmacy. In 2005, two patients at a Washington, DC Veterans Hospital went blind after a drug used in their cataract surgery was found to be contaminated by bacteria.

That’s not to say that all compound pharmacists in the United States are producing poorly mixed products. Some, like Farzana Kennedy, owner of the Alexandria Compounding Pharmacy outside of Washington, DC are increasingly being relied upon by hospitals and doctors to supply scarcely found medicines.

Often these lifesaving drugs in the US are in short supply because manufacturers have discontinued making them due to of a lack of profits.

Kennedy told me, she is licensed under the state of Virginia’s, “Board of Pharmacy” and is subject to inspection at any time. She operates under strict guidelines. Quality is a priority she told me and her reputation keeps her product in high demand.

She says she is “constantly compounding for a drug shortage, or because somebody got allergies and they can’t take what’s (commercially) available or she’s changing a dosage because it’s for a child.” She says she provides a critical service to many patients with few options.

Still, critics argue the drug shortages have created a regulation loophole in the U.S. that is encouraging larger compound pharmacies to act like drug manufacturers. The problem is their products are not held to the same strict standards under US Food and Drug Administration guidelines.

Kyle Sampson is a Washington, DC lawyer who specialises in cases involving drug compliance. He told me America’s chronic drug shortages have forced doctors to look to compounding pharmacies to help fill a void.

He’s concerned that’s encouraging large compound pharmacies to “push the envelope of what is traditional pharmaceutical compounding and move into a world of drug manufacturing and that’s when you get problems like this,” where quality may be compromised.

That means for American consumers buying the unregulated drugs there is significant risk, that at times can have devastating, even deadly consequences.

Follow Kimberly Halkett on Twitter: @KimberlyHalkett