A Meningitis Mishap

Modern medicine has revolutionized the treatment and healing process from its humanitarian debut in the 1600s — but could its accessibility be an insidious facet of modernization?

The meningitis outbreak made its morbid presence known when it first began claiming victims in late September and has since caused victims to develop unusual abscesses. Its mortality rate was especially high and some suggest the disease spread was aided by a human hand.

Meningitis affirmed modern medicine’s false sanctity since its diagnosis in patients two months ago — those treated for neck and back pain have contracted meningitis from contaminated drugs they were administered to alleviate discomfort.

From there, they developed internal abscesses that are undetectable, except through MRIs. Because the abscess is unrecognizable and unseen, sufferers often do not seek medical attention (for good reason).

Since September, 29 people have fallen victim to the infection through unsavory means and its consequences continue to ensue. 114 people in Michigan have contracted meningitis due to its contamination, more than any other state that has reported cases.

Meningitis is the result of inflammation of the meninges, the protective membranes of the brain and spinal cord. Its common symptoms can be headaches, caused by swelling of the membrane, and others like stiffness in the neck, inability to handle bright lights, disorientation and fever. Its danger is due to the areas that it affects — the spinal cord and brain — which are sensitive areas that act as the command center and provide movement for the body. Many of those that have died thus far have suffered strokes caused by the infection.

At Michigan’s St. Joseph’s Hospital, roughly 18 patients that were treated with the drugs returned — this time with abscesses. Epidural abscesses, specific to these cases, are a collection of infected material between the membrane and bones of the brain and spinal cord that can be removed, or cleaned via neuro-surgery or treated with antifungal medication.

Dr. Lakshmi Halasyamani, the hospital’s chief medical officer, said “an epidural abscess is very serious.”

Doctors like Halasyamani and Dr. Chiller, another Michigan doctor, were unprepared for this type of outbreak because the drugs administered were clinically shown to defeat the main fungus attributed to meningitis, but have proved ineffective in slowing its rampage.

These epidural abscesses are unseen from the exterior of the body and there are no visible signs that a victim may have one until an internal scan of the body can be done.

Investigation into the contamination brought up shocking evidence.

The New England Compounding Center in Massachusetts manufactured and shipped roughly 17,000 vials of the contaminated drug nationwide and 14,000 people were treated with it. These “pharmacies” mix their own medications and receive scant regulation from the government.

The accessibility of drugs to hospitals, clinics and doctors’ offices coupled with the under-scrutinized drug manufacturers make epidemics like this one very possible.

Humanity relies on medicine as a means to heal and preserve their well-being, but these circumstances that are alive in the world counteract that principle. Hospitals were once safe-havens for the sick and downtrodden, and now MRSA and staphylococcus, staph infections, often times put patients at higher risk of death than the patient’s initial illness or injury does.

Hospitals are often times overcrowded or understaffed, and patients catch airborne illnesses and various viruses that can be life-threatening to the medically debilitated. Contaminated surgical needles and utensils likewise cause situations where patients contract similar infections that can turn deadly, analogous to this outbreak.

Sarah Gray Isenberg is a third-year comparative literature and literary journalism double major. She can be reached at sisenber@uci.edu.