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UPDATE 1-U.S. meningitis outbreak claims three more lives

(Updates death toll, case numbers, adds first case in New Jersey)

By Tim Ghianni

NASHVILLE, Tenn., Oct 9 (Reuters) - A rare U.S. outbreak of fungal meningitis linked to steroid injections has claimed three more lives and New Jersey became the tenth state to report at least one case of the illness in a widening health scare, health authorities said on Tuesday.

The Centers for Disease Control confirmed that two more people had died from meningitis in Tennessee, and one more in Michigan after receiving injections of potentially tainted steroid, bringing the number of deaths nationwide to 11.

The number of people sickened reached 119 on Tuesday, 14 cases more than had been reported by Monday.

The potentially tainted steroid vials, which have been recalled, were shipped to 76 facilities in 23 states and some 13,000 people may have received injections from the medications, the CDC has said.

The New Jersey Department of Health said a 70-year-old Cumberland County, New Jersey man was hospitalized with apparent fungal meningitis, the first case in that state.

"He developed headaches and went to the emergency room with fever and continued headaches," the New Jersey agency said, adding that he was receiving anti-fungal medication at South Jersey Healthcare Regional Medical Center in Vineland.

The widening outbreak has alarmed U.S. health officials and focused attention on regulation of pharmaceutical compounding companies such as the one that produced the drugs, the New England Compounding Center Inc in Framingham, Massachusetts.

The federal Food and Drug Administration regulates only the ingredients and not the compounders, which are subject to a patchwork of state oversight.

Three Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives called on Tuesday for a congressional probe of the meningitis outbreak.

"This incident raises serious concerns about the scope of the practice of pharmacy compounding in the United States and the current patchwork of federal and state laws," the Democrats Henry Waxman, Frank Pallone and Diana DeGette said in a letter.

Some of the thousands of people at risk of contracting meningitis may have to wait anxiously for weeks because the incubation period of the disease is up to a month, health experts said.

Tennessee is the hardest hit state with six deaths and 39 cases of meningitis, followed by Michigan with three deaths and 25 cases, Virginia with one death and 24 cases and Maryland with one death and eight cases.

The other states with cases are Indiana (12), Florida (4), Minnesota (3), North Carolina (2), Ohio (1) and New Jersey (1).

Meningitis is an infection of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord. It is not contagious.

(Writing by Greg McCune; Editing by Claudia Parsons)

((Greg.mccune@thomsonreuters.com))

Keywords: USA HEALTH/MENINGITIS