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Chicago doctor expects more meningitis cases

CHICAGO (AP) — A Chicago doctor who has done spinal taps on two patients to rule out fungal meningitis said Monday that he expects to see more cases of the illness in Illinois as testing continues.

Dr. Rahul Khare, an emergency physician for Northwestern Medicine, said the patients he tested were frightened, but the tests showed nothing abnormal. The patients had received back injections of a possibly tainted steroid from a Massachusetts pharmacy that's been linked to an outbreak of deadly meningitis. They had symptoms that could indicate the illness.

It's confusing and frightening for patients, he said, because their back and neck pain, for which they were getting the steroid shots in the first place, can mimic symptoms of meningitis. Infected patients have had slightly worse back pain or mild headaches, for example.

"There is this wave of anxiety because people are dying from it," Khare said.

A steroid made by the New England Compounding Center of Framingham, Mass., has been tied to a national outbreak of a rare fungal form of meningitis that has killed 15 people. The Food and Drug Administration said Monday that several new illnesses may be tied to other products made by the company.

Illinois reported last week that a Chicago resident is the state's first probable case of fungal meningitis linked to the outbreak. Illinois Department of Public Health spokeswoman Melaney Arnold said Monday that the patient is hospitalized in stable condition and receiving treatment.

An estimated 350 Illinoisans may have been exposed to the product at three clinics operated by APAC Centers for Pain Management.

"I think there's a lot of fear," Khare said. "These patients have these chronic pains. That's why they're getting epidural shot treatment in the first place."

Khare said the patients or their health insurance plans are paying for the spinal taps, also called lumbar punctures, to test for signs of infection.

Infected patients have developed symptoms from one to four weeks after being injected with the steroid medication, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC advises patients at risk to remain vigilant for symptoms for several months after the injection.

This type of meningitis is not contagious.

Patients who received injections of the product in knees, shoulders and ankles are being advised they may be at risk for joint infections. They are not believed to be at risk for fungal meningitis. Arnold, of the state health department, said APAC is contacting patients who received injections in their joints, along with patients who got the shots in their backs.

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