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Columbus clinic got tainted medicine: 309 Wellspring patients at risk for fungal meningitis

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One batch of medicine sent by a New England pharmacy to a pain-management practice in Columbus has been identified by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as tainted.

A total of 309 patients of Columbus’ Wellspring Pain Solutions received injections that could have been tainted, according to Columbus Regional Health spokeswoman Paige Harden.

“Our phone is ringing off the hook this morning,” Paulette Fry, Wellspring’s practice manager, said Friday. “Of course they’re concerned.”

The steroid medicine has triggered fungal meningitis that has killed five people nationwide, said federal health officials. It also is linked to strokes.

But no one has had a reaction here, according to Harden. Nationwide, 47 cases of fungal meningitis were reported by late afternoon Friday.

Wellspring has identified all patients who received injections, Harden said. She added that Wellspring doctors are trying to meet with each of those patients in the next few days.

Dr. Michael Whitworth of Columbus, chairman of the Indiana Pain Society, said a check earlier Friday with about a half-dozen Indiana clinics that received the back-pain medicine, methylprednisolone acetate, showed that two patients — one in Evansville and one in South Bend — have been hospitalized. About 1,500 patients statewide received an injection of the potentially tainted medicine.

Whitworth and Harden said that fungal meningitis is not contagious and has a 90-day incubation period. That means that some patients may not exhibit harmful symptoms until December, because tainted shipments of the medicine were administered from July 1 to Sept. 26.

“We’re on high alert,” Harden said.

Whitworth said that no one knows yet how the medicine was infected with a fungus inside a sealed vial. But he mentioned that a problem can occur with conditions as basic as a pharmacy employee with a sinus infection.

“They could have inadvertently contaminated a batch (of medicine) and not even known it,” Whitworth said.

A frequent lecturer at pain conferences, Whitworth is familiar with New England Compounding Center, which has shut down production since the meningitis outbreak.

“I have seen and heard them at many of the pain conferences (nationally),” he said. “They always have counted themselves as one of the paradigms for what sterilization procedures should be for compounding pharmacies.”

Meningitis is an inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord. Fungal meningitis is caused by a leaf mold.

The medicine from the New England clinic was preservative-free, according to Whitworth. He said some physicians choose that type because they prefer not to inject preservatives into a patient.

But the preservatives in the medicine can prevent contamination, according to Whitworth.

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