Meningitis outbreak in Mexico claims 22 lives, private hospitals blamed for the spread

MEXICO — The public prosecutor’s office in Durango, a state in northwestern Mexico has blamed private hospitals in the state for contamination of anesthetics that caused an outbreak of meningitis in which 22 people died and at least 71 became ill.

In a statement, the prosecutor’s office said it had issued seven arrest warrants against administrators and owners of four private hospitals where the outbreak began in November.

The warrants charged them with homicide and causing injuries. The office said that tests on a vial of the anesthetic used in the hospitals found no sign of the fungus that caused the outbreak.

Authorities had previously closed the four clinics, saying “serious deficiencies” had been found during inspections.

Federal and state health authorities said that the fungus, Fusarium solani was to blame. An anesthetic medication used on patients who became ill with meningitis may have been contaminated with the fungus, possibly because the drug was inadequately stored.

Another possibility is that the patients were injected with contaminated needles.

Almost all of those infected were women undergoing obstetric procedures. All patients underwent an anesthesia procedure administered through needles in the spinal cord. The federal government later confirmed that the injections were contaminated with fungus.

Some feared the drug had been contaminated in the manufacturing or distribution process, but officials said the problem arose in hospitals.

According to prosecutors, “laboratory results” determined that procedures implemented at those centers were the cause of the illness, though they did not specify what had been done wrong.

It has been the latest scandal for the Mexican health system, which has also repeatedly had difficulties supplying drugs for children with cancer.

In 2020, 14 people died after a hospital run by Mexico’s state oil company gave dialysis patients medicine contaminated with the bacteria. More than 69 patients fell ill in that outbreak.

Meningitis is an infection of the membrane surrounding the brain and the spinal cord. Fungal meningitis is rare and usually the result of spread of a fungus through blood to the spinal cord. 

Although anyone can get fungal meningitis, people with weakened immune systems, like those with HIV infection or cancer, are at higher risk.

Fungal meningitis is usually treated with antifungal medications. Long-term conditions that can arise from a meningitis infection include hearing loss, cognitive dysfunctions, such as memory or learning problems, loss of limbs, and visual impairment.

Due to the severe impact of untreated meningitis, the disease is considered among the four leading causes of Disability Adjusted Life Years (DALYs).

Meanwhile, a co-owner of a Massachusetts compounding pharmacy whose mold-tainted drugs sparked a deadly fungal meningitis outbreak in 2012 has been sentenced to one year in prison for deceiving regulators to avoid federal oversight before the tragedy.

Gregory Conigliaro was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Richard Stearns in Boston after a federal appeals court last year revived his conviction for conspiring to defraud the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ahead of the outbreak.

He was among 14 people associated with Framingham, Massachusetts-based NECC who were indicted after mold-tainted steroids it produced sickened 793 people nationally, including more than 100 who died.

In addition to prison, Conigliaro must pay a US$40,000 fine.

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