U.S. meningitis deaths rise to 19 as probe of firm intensifies

Wed Oct 17, 2012 4:37pm EDT

* Four more deaths confirmed in past 24 hours

* FDA agents search offices of firm in Boston

* Patients continue to contact doctors with symptoms

By Svea Herbst-Bayliss and David Morgan

BOSTON/WASHINGTON, Oct 17 (Reuters) - The number of deaths from a U.S. meningitis outbreak linked to contaminated steroid medications rose to 19 on Wednesday, just hours after federal agents raided the offices of the company at the center of the scandal and took away documents.

The Centers for Disease Control said states had confirmed four more deaths in the last 24 hours as the national outbreak grew.

Two of the deaths were in Tennessee, the hardest hit state with eight deaths since the infection was discovered in late September. Virginia and Florida each reported one new fatality.

The daily tally was a reminder that one of the worst U.S. health scares in recent years has not been contained, despite emergency steps to recall the medications and stop the use of products from New England Compounding Center of Massachusetts.

One of the victims was a 78-year-old man in Marion County, Florida, the Florida Department of Health said.

The number of new cases of meningitis from the injections rose by 14 on Wednesday, reaching 245, the CDC said. It said there had been another two infections that have not been confirmed as meningitis.

Meningitis is an infection of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord. Fungal meningitis is not contagious.

The meningitis scare began last month when people began arriving at the emergency room of St Thomas hospital in Nashville, Tennessee with severe headaches and other symptoms after receiving epidural injections for back pain from a separate clinic housed in the hospital building.

The injections were from steroid produced by NECC of Massachusetts and shipped to 76 medical facilities in 23 states. Health authorities have scrambled to contact nearly 14,000 patients at risk of meningitis and to remove all the products suspected of being contaminated from the shelves.

But the product was shipped as early as late May and patients continue to contact doctors with headaches, fever, nausea and stroke-like symptoms. Cases of the disease have been confirmed in 15 states and deaths in six.

OFFICES SEARCHED

The scare has prompted a host of federal and state investigations. On Tuesday evening, U.S. Food and Drug Administration agents searched NECC offices in the Boston suburb of Framingham and emerged with a large trove of documents.

NECC is a "compounding" pharmacy, firms that prepare specific doses of approved medications, based on guidance from a doctor, to meet an individual patient's need. It shipped products throughout the United States.

The Framingham raid came as pressure increased for investigators to determine how the product was contaminated and who is responsible.

"If the investigation finds any criminal misdoings, the Department of Justice must act decisively, file charges and prosecute the company or individuals responsible," said Connecticut Democratic Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, who has introduced legislation to give FDA more authority to regulate compounding pharmacies.

A lawyer for NECC said the raid was unnecessary.

"We have been clear that (NECC) would provide, and has provided, anything requested," Paul Cirel, of Collora LLP in Boston, said in a statement.

The FDA, which inspected NECC facilities prior to the raid, warned doctors in a conference call on Tuesday that the agency could not guarantee the sterility of NECC products. It said federal and state health authorities were trying to trace all products from NECC around the country.

A list of more than 131,000 shipping invoices for NECC products shipped to medical facilities across the United States was sent to state health authorities by the FDA earlier this week, the Tennessee Health Department said on its website.

In Tennessee alone, 74 healthcare facilities received shipments from NECC, the state said. (Additional reporting by David Bailey, Michael Peltier, David Morgan, Ros Krasny, Toni Clarke, Bill Berkrot, Svea Herbst-Bayliss, David Morgan and Tim Ghianni; Editing by David Brunnstrom)