Fewer patients given injections than initially thought, Macon clinic says

jkovac@macon.comOctober 8, 2012 

More than two dozen health clinics across Georgia received medication shipments from a Massachusetts company at the center of a meningitis outbreak linked to fouled steroid injections.

But only one, a prominent orthopedic practice in Macon, was sent potentially tainted batches of the drug, which were given to 184 patients in recent months, the last time on Sept. 24.

None of the patients, however, has been diagnosed with the deadly fungal meningitis strain that has killed eight people and sickened more than 100 across nine states.

The task of telling the nearly 200 affected patients here that they may have been exposed has taken an emotional toll on staffers at the outpatient-surgery wing of Forsyth Street Orthopaedics, where the pain-blocking injections were administered.

Nurse and office administrator Michelle Hodge was in tears Friday.

“As a nurse, you want to take care of your patient and try to provide the best possible care you can for them,” Hodge said Monday. “And when something like this happens and it’s out of your control, you just feel bad. ... I don’t care how many people say it’s not your fault, it doesn’t make you feel any better.”

Dr. Frank Kelly, among the group of Macon doctors who run the Forsyth Street practice, said, “We just feel so bad for the patients.”

The number of patients thought to be at risk (184) was reduced over the weekend when it was determined that some of them had been counted more than once because they’d been given repeat injections. Health officials had set the number of patients at 189 on Friday.

On the heels of the outbreak and word that the Massachusetts company has come under scrutiny in the past, Forsyth Street Orthopaedics has cut ties with New England Compounding, the specialty manufacturer of the suspect drugs, and is no longer using its products.

“Even though we’ve been working with this company for the past three years, we had had no problems that we were aware of,” Kelly said, “and the company was felt to be a reputable company.”

Until now.

“We are very wary of using their compounds,” Kelly said of the makers of the steroid drug in question, methyleprednisolone acetate, which is used to treat back and neck pain.

Even though fungal meningitis has a roughly one-month incubation period, Kelly said that as a precaution his office has been in touch with patients who received injections as far back as July 1. Staffers have alerted patients about the risk, slight as it may be in some cases, and the symptoms of fungal meningitis.

Of those 184 patients, all but one had been reached as of Monday afternoon.

“There’s one patient we’ve left five voice mails and sent letters to,” Kelly said.

The doctor added that most patients seemed “understanding of the problem, and by and large were OK with it.”

So far, eight patients have been referred to their family doctors after reporting curious symptoms.

“Fortunately,” Kelly said, “the ones that have had symptoms, they’ve been mild symptoms related to some other mild illness.”

He said his office will keep “close track” of the affected patients for another couple of weeks.

“After that,” Kelly said, “perhaps we can breathe easier.”

To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.

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