Are You at Risk of Meningitis?

October 16, 2012
By Tom Canty, Vice President and General Manager for Labor, Government and Special Accounts at Empire BlueCross BlueShield
By now you’ve likely heard or read headlines about the latest outbreak of meningitis that has led to at least eleven deaths and over 100 illnesses throughout the United States.  Should you be worried? No, not unless you’ve had a steroid shot in your spine to treat back pain in the past five months.

Here’s the difference between this latest outbreak and meningitis in general:

 Meningitis is a disease resulting in the inflammation of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord.  It typically results from a viral infection, although the cause may sometimes be bacterial.  The severity and treatment of meningitis differs according to the type of infection, which is why it is important to know the specific cause.
The two common types of meningitis, bacterial and viral, are contagious.  Viral meningitis is serious and can lead to permanent problems.  It is, however, rarely fatal for people with normal immune systems.  Bacterial meningitis, on the other hand, is life-threatening and frequently fatal if not treated quickly.  Fortunately, childhood and adolescent vaccines developed over the past few decades have greatly decreased the incidence of bacterial meningitis among those who are fully immunized.
This latest outbreak is the rarely seen fungal meningitis, which is not contagious like the bacterial or viral forms.  Fungal meningitis can develop after a fungus spreads through the bloodstream from somewhere else in the body, or as a result of the fungus being introduced directly into the central nervous system.  In the cases being featured in the news, the patients received back injections with a steroid medication suspected to be contaminated by a fungus. The potentially contaminated vaccines were shipped around the country starting May 21, 2012, and recalled on Sept. 26, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
Signs and symptoms of fungal meningitis may include fever, headache, nausea, sensitivity to light, confusion and stroke. According to the CDC, affected patients’ symptoms started one to four weeks after they received the shots. If you believe you or someone you know had the treatment for back pain called a lumbar epidural steroid injection after May 21, and are experiencing any of these symptoms, please contact a physician right away.  In cases of emergency, go to your nearest emergency room.  Fungal meningitis is treated with high-dose antifungal medications, usually given intravenously, in a hospital.


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