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Stephanie Novak/MEDILL

A potential meningitis outbreak in Illinois was among topics discussed by the Chicago Department of Public Health at a recent meeting. Department Commissioner Bechara Choucair (r) asked questions about the continued monitoring effort.

Potential Illinois meningitis victim a false alarm despite symptoms

by Stephanie Novak and Brooke Workneh
Oct 24, 2012

Screening cleared Chicago’s one potential victim of the national meningitis outbreak.

He most likely does not have the deadly disease, according to one of the physicians who saw him.

With this result, Illinois may ultimately have zero patients falling ill from meningitis due to exposure to contaminated steroids, the doctor reported on Wednesday.

“The patient does not seem to have this disease, but he does meet the CDC guidelines” for exposure, said Dr. Randolph Chang, the physician who has seen the patient and is the Illinois Medical Director for APAC Centers for Pain Management. The centers operate privately run clinics specializing in management of spinal pain.

“The CDC has very broad guidelines on who could be a case. He is not a confirmed case. [The patient] had an injection with the suspected contaminant a few months ago. He had a headache and other issues.” This raised concerns, Cheng said, because these are symptoms of meningitis.

Chang said he could not disclose more details, including the patient’s name, for privacy reasons. However, he said that the patient did receive a spinal injection from a contaminated batch of medication and had some symptoms that meet the criteria for a meningitis infection. Chang said these symptoms now have been linked to other medical conditions, not meningitis. He said the patient is receiving treatment and would hopefully return home soon.

The injections, contaminated by the New England provider, were dispensed at the APAC Centers for Pain Management in Westchester and Chicago and at the Thorek Memorial Clinic in Chicago.

In Illinois, 164 patients received the contaminated epidural injections for back pain since May 21, but now, “we shouldn’t have new patients,” Chang said. All patients were contacted at least four weeks ago, meaning that the one-month incubation period since exposure has nearly passed for Illinois patients, according to Chang.

“The Illinois Department of Public Health continues to send information to health providers across Illinois who may have received NECC injectable products that have been recalled and will continue to follow-up,” said Melaney Arnold, the communications manager for the IDPH, in an emailed statement.

The IDPH advises patients who have received an epidural steroid injection, or medication injected into their spine, and have symptoms such as “worsening headache, fever, sensitivity to light, stiff neck, new weakness or numbness in any part of your body, nausea and vomiting, altered mental status,” to contact their physician immediately, according to the same statement.

“Everyone has been spoken to by my staff or me and received a letter, so everyone is aware,” Chang said, referring to his patients who had received the contaminated epidural injection. Chang said that he and other physicians in Illinois are still following the recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration and having conference calls with the organizations.

The IDPH, the Chicago Department of Public Health, the Cook County Department of Public Health and APAC Centers for Pain Management all continue to work together to keep lines of communication open by contacting patients and running a hotline for those who have symptoms to call.

Anyone worried that they may have meningitis can call 708-483-7007, a hotline where health professionals are standing by to give patients guidance. Chang said that any concerned patients should go to the emergency room right away. There, physicians will perform a procedure called a lumbar puncture, where an injection into the lower part of the spine will remove a small amount of spinal fluid for screening.

Physicians test the fluid for the meningitis virus and can confirm a diagnosis in a few hours.