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Fungal Meningitis Death Toll Continues to Rise

iiStockphoto/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- An eleventh person has died and 108 more have been sickened by a rare form of fungal meningitis, health officials said Tuesday.

The outbreak of aspergillus meningitis has been linked to an injectable steroid, called methylprednisolone acetate, made by a Massachusetts pharmaceutical company. A sealed vial of the drug, obtained by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration contained levels of fungus that were visible to the naked eye.

The New England Compounding Center, based in Framingham, Mass. has recalled all of its products and shut down operations, but health officials estimate that 13,000 people may have been exposed to the suspect steroid since May.

Thirty-nine of the fungal meningitis cases -- six of them lethal -- have been in Tennessee. Cases have also been reported in Michigan, Virginia, Indiana, Maryland, Florida, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio and, most recently, New Jersey.

Seventy-six clinics in 23 states that received methylprednisolone acetate from the recalled lots have been instructed to notify all affected patients. The "potentially contaminated injections were given starting May 21, 2012," according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC's Dr. Benjamin Park says most of the cases occurred in older adults who were healthy aside from back pain.

Meningitis affects the membranous lining of the brain and spinal cord. Early symptoms of fungal meningitis, such as headache, fever, dizziness, nausea, sensitivity to light, stiff neck, weakness or numbness, slurred speech and pain, redness or swelling at the injection site can take nearly a month to appear. Left untreated, the inflammatory disease can cause permanent neurological damage and death.

"Fungal meningitis in general is rare. But aspergillus meningitis -- the kind we're talking about here -- is super rare and very serious," said Dr. William Schaffner, president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and chairman of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. "There's no such thing as mild aspergillus meningitis."

Unlike bacterial meningitis, fungal meningitis is not transmitted from person to person and only people who received the steroid injections are thought to be at risk.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

ABC News Radio