RPT-Legal recriminations begin over major U.S. meningitis outbreak

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By David Bailey

MINNEAPOLIS, Oct 12 (Reuters) - One of the nearly 14,000patients given potentially tainted injections of pain medicinehas sued the maker of the treatment in what may be the first ofa wave of lawsuits over a deadly U.S. meningitis outbreak thatshows no signs of abating.

The lawsuit was filed in a Minnesota federal court onThursday by a woman who said she was given a steroid injectionfor back pain and has experienced symptoms consistent withmeningitis. She is awaiting the results of tests.

Federal and state health authorities have confirmed 14meningitis deaths nationwide since people who received theinjections began coming to emergency rooms last month inTennessee, the state with the most cases.

The number of people who contracted meningitis has risenrapidly in a week, and reached 169 on Thursday, an increase of32 from the previous day.

The outbreak has turned into a major national health scandalwith multiple investigations launched and a leading lawmaker,Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, calling for acriminal probe of the company at the center of the storm, NewEngland Compounding Center of Massachusetts.

The Massachusetts health regulator accused the company onThursday of flouting state laws for pharmacies. The compoundingcompany has recalled the suspect product, surrendered itsoperating license and has said it is cooperating with theinvestigations.

Federal and state regulators also have come under scrutinyfor allowing an obscure pharmaceuticals sector known ascompounding to grow rapidly without much federal oversight.Compounders take drug ingredients and make specializedtreatments for patients. The industry has grown so large thatsome of the companies operate more like drug manufacturers thanpharmacies, critics say.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said onThursday it was working furiously to contain the meningitisoutbreak from medications shipped to 23 states. Eleven of thosestates have reported cases of meningitis and there have beendeaths in six states.

Of the 14,000 people at risk of infection, medicalpractitioners were still trying to reach about 2,000 patients towarn them to be tested immediately.

"We are not out of the woods yet," said Dr. Todd Weber,manager of the CDC response to the meningitis outbreak, during abriefing on Thursday.

While most of the patients at risk received epiduralinjections to alleviate back pain, the CDC spoke of a newconcern on Thursday about patients who received injections injoints such as a knee or ankle.

They disclosed that a Michigan patient who had received aninjection in an ankle, developed an infection. Tests have notyet been completed to determine if it is a fungal infection.

The CDC said all people who might have received theinjections in joints from the suspect product also should seekmedical attention.

Meningitis is an infection of the membranes covering thebrain and spinal cord. Symptoms include headache, fever andnausea and it must be treated quickly to improve chances ofsurvival. Fungal meningitis is a rare form and is notcontagious.

Most people infected so far have displayed symptoms withintwo weeks of receiving the medication and as long as 42 daysafterward. They cautioned that patients should be vigilant forseveral months if they received one of the injections.

Health authorities said more than 50 vials of the steroid,out of more than 17,000, had so far been confirmed ascontaminated with more tests underway.

The lawsuit is Barbe Puro v. New England CompoundingPharmacy Inc, U.S. District Court, District of Minnesota, No.12-2605.

(Reporting David Morgan, David Bailey, Toni Clarke, Ros Krasnyand Tim Ghianni; Writing by Greg McCune; Editing by LisaShumaker)