State epidemiologist says North Carolina responded quickly to meningitis scare

Posted January 21, 2013

State officials say an Associated Press report unfairly suggests they were slow to react to a fungal meningitis scare associated with tainted back pain medicine. Nationwide, 40 people died in the outbreak, including one in North Carolina. 

The Centers for Disease Controlled warned North Carolina on Sept. 27 that a case of fungal meningitis here could be linked to a Tennessee case and that there was possibly a "broader contamination issue."

An Associated Press story published Monday said North Carolina was slow to spread word of the threat. From that story: 

But it wasn't until five days later that the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services notified the public about the threat, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.

Hundreds of emails obtained through a public records request show how North Carolina health officials handled the fast-moving crisis.

Working with the CDC, the state health agency wrestled with what to tell the public, including whether to name the clinics suspected of administering the contaminated medication.

Health Department officials said that while they did not speak to the wider public about the potential contamination right away, they knew which three medical centers in North Carolina had received shipments of the potentially contaminated medicine. Those centers, department officials said, were contacted quickly.  

On Friday Sept 28th, DHHS Spokeswoman Julie Henry said, the Department of Public Health contacted all three facilities that had received the particular product and instructed them to stop using it immediately. Those clinics were also instructed to directly contact patients who could potentially have received the product over the weekend.

The majority of patients were contacted by Monday, Henry said. 

Dr. Megan Davies, the state epidemiologist, said North Carolina placed a priority on contacting directly those patients who may have been affected.

"We had a list of the people who were at risk of having received that product. So our priority was absolutely on getting in contact with every single one of those people – ether their medical provider or a public health professional – talking directly to that person," Davies said. 

Davies says she wanted at-risk patients to hear the news from a doctor. She says the contacts were completed before the public was notified. And because the drug was removed from use the day of the warning, no one else was at risk of exposure to it. The North Carolina patient who died was infected earlier in the year.

Henry said the procedures followed were common and designed to avoid unnecessary panic.  

If the department had put out public notice on Friday the 28th, Henry said, “We could have had thousands of people calling their doctors’ offices and worrying they were infected. Even after the official release went out, we still had people calling who were not linked to the clinics in question.”



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