Meningitis outbreak highlights drug safetyA steroid commonly injected into people with severe back pain is thought to be contaminated, and could be behind a deadly meningitis outbreak among some who received the shots. So far, more than 100 have contracted fungal meningitis from the potentially tainted medicine, and eight have died as a result. It is estimated that 13,000 people are at risk of coming down with the illness after receiving the injections.

Since it was revealed that the steroids may be contaminated, the drug's manufacturer, the New England Compounding Center, volunteered to recall all products that were distributed from its Framingham, Massachusetts, facility. However, officials have not confirmed the meningitis outbreak originated as a result of contaminated steroids from this facility - they are also looking into other potential causes for the continuing spreading of the illness.

Tainted medicine can enter drug supply chain
This form of meningitis isn't contagious, but it is still encouraging fears about the regulation and safety of the medical drug supply chain. Officials are becoming increasingly concerned about the rise of "compounding pharmacies." These labs mix medications to supply hospitals and clinics with necessary drugs, but their products are not subject to the same laws and regulations as the original manufacturers. This makes it easy for tainted medication to make its way to patients across the country, and procurement managers seem to be increasing their sourcing from these companies.

Health professionals are sometimes required to obtain products from compounding pharmacies, if drug shortages or limited availability mean a patient has no other way to receive life-saving or pain-relieving medication. However, the risks of using these drugs has been well-documented, and compounding pharmacies have experienced contamination problems in the past, in some cases sickening or killing those who used their products.

Manufacturers expanding their reach
Even though some health professionals hesitate to obtain medication from compounding pharmacies, the industry is growing. The Associated Press reported that more than 7,500 of these businesses are currently operating across the country, and they produce about 3 percent of all prescriptions filled by patients.

Many claim compounding pharmacies need to undergo the same oversight as drug manufacturers to prevent contamination and protect those who take medication that comes from such a facility. In a letter to the Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal stressed the need for more oversight of this industry to protect consumers.

"This tragic incident calls for stronger oversight, more exacting standards and stricter enforcement of consumer and patient protections related to compounding pharmacies," his letter read. "I remain particularly concerned that compounding, which is intended for individual patient special needs, may have grown more broadly in some instances, into widespread and multi-state distribution."
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