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October 19, 2012

FLASHPOINT: Meningitis: What you need to know

INDIANAPOLIS — You’ve likely heard or read headlines about the latest outbreak of meningitis that has led to at least 11 deaths and over 100 illnesses throughout the United States.

Should you be worried? Not unless you’ve had a steroid shot in your spine to treat back pain in the past four months. Here’s the difference between this latest outbreak and meningitis in general:

Meningitis is a disease caused by the inflammation of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord known as the meninges. Meningitis typically results from a viral infection, although the cause may sometimes also be a bacterial infection. The severity and treatment of meningitis differ according to type and symptoms, which is why it’s important to know the specific cause of meningitis.

While viral meningitis is serious, it’s rarely fatal for people with normal immune systems. Bacterial meningitis, however, is one of the most serious and life-threatening forms. There are a number of strains of bacterial meningitis, among them the highly contagious meningococcal meningitis. This strain commonly occurs when bacteria from an upper respiratory infection enters the bloodstream, and it affects mainly teenagers and young adults who are sharing close quarters like college dorms and military bases.

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 medication was 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, severe headache, nausea, sensitivity to light, altered mental status and stroke. According to the CDC, symptoms have been appearing between one and four weeks after patients received the shots. If you believe you or someone you know may be at risk for having contracted fungal meningitis, please contact a physician right away. Fungal meningitis is treated with high-dose antifungal medications, usually given intravenously in a hospital.

This latest fungal meningitis outbreak is an unimaginable tragedy for those affected and their loved ones. But the situation also represents the expanse and limits of the modern way in which we acquire news, through real-time media outlets and constant updates from the Internet and social media. It also signals an opportunity to further connect people with credible resources such as the CDC for the latest information about health matters that may or may not affect them.

Dr. Fox is the medical director for Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Indiana.

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