The number of death and the rate of illness are rising from a multiple-state outbreak of a rare form of fungal meningitis, according to health officials.

Aspergillus meningitis, the culprit behind the outbreak, has been linked to epidural steroid injections for pain. The contaminated steroids (methylprednisolone acetate) were made by the New England Compounding Center in Framingham, Mass. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 13,000 people may have been exposed to the suspect steroid in the last six months.

Meningitis affects the membranous lining of the brain and spinal cord. Left untreated, the inflammatory disease can cause permanent neurological damage and death.

So far, victims of the outbreak have experienced meningitis symptoms beginning from one to four weeks after the injection. Not all patients who received the tainted steroids will become sick.

According to the CDC, fungal meningitis symptoms may include the following:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Stiff neck
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Photophobia (sensitivity to light)
  • Altered mental status
  • New weakness or numbness
  • Increasing pain
  • Redness or swelling of the injection site
"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 contagious and only those who received the steroid shots should be at risk. If you are experiencing any meningitis symptoms, talk to your health care provider immediately. Once detected, it can be treated with high doses of intravenous antifungal medications.

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