News / Health

Contaminated Steroid Injections Spotlight Role of Custom Drug Firms

This photo made available by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a branch of the fungus Aspergillus fumigatus blamed for causing a meningitis outbreak.This photo made available by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a branch of the fungus Aspergillus fumigatus blamed for causing a meningitis outbreak.
x
This photo made available by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a branch of the fungus Aspergillus fumigatus blamed for causing a meningitis outbreak.
This photo made available by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a branch of the fungus Aspergillus fumigatus blamed for causing a meningitis outbreak.
Vidushi Sinha
U.S health officials are still investigating an outbreak of a rare fungal meningitis that so far has killed at least 14 people and sickened more than 170 over the past two weeks. Investigators suspect the outbreak was caused by a batch of contaminated steroid injections given to more than 13000 people across the country to relieve chronic back or joint pain.  The shots, produced by a small Massachusetts drug company known as a "compounding pharmacy" have all been recalled, and the firm's operations halted.  But the outbreak has focused renewed attention on the expanding role of such pharmacies in the U.S. and other countries, and prompted calls for stricter regulation. 

Public health officials in the United States have moved quickly to contain the current outbreak.  Dr. John Lanza, a health officer in Florida, has been working to contact every patient known to have received a fungus-tainted steroid injection - since they are still at risk of contracting the infection.

“Fungal meningitis is a very severe situation, that's why we are making the extra efforts to try and find these people and warn them," said Lanza.

Besides alarming health officials, the outbreak has also highlighted gaps in the regulation of so-called "compounding pharmacies." These small businesses re-mix, customize and package prescription drug ingredients for specific clients. David Miller is executive Vice President of the International Academy of Compounding Pharmacists.

“You may be allergic to part of the ingredients from the manufacturer.  If you are an older patient and if you don’t have the liver and kidney function you had when you were younger you may not metabolize drugs the same way. So we have to take stronger medicines and reduce their strength," said Miller.

The remix might also be used to make a child's medication more palatable.  Miller, who is a pharmacist by training, says there are many ways in which dangerous contaminants can accidently be introduced while customizing a drug.

“Whenever you are doing sterile medicine it can be the person, it can be the environment and it can be the equipment that introduces a contaminant. For example if I did not wash my hands well enough, if I have skin exposure, if I have my hair exposed in other words am I bringing bacteria or contaminant in, the environment is very specific, the air is filtered, its decontaminated," he said.

It is not yet known how the the steroids produced at the Massachusetts pharmacy became contaminated with fungus.  But state regulatory authorities question whether the company might have taken on too large a role as a national drug supplier.  And many public health experts say federal regulators should oversee this and other compounding pharmacies.

Dr. Patrick Lukulay is with The United States Pharmacopeia, a scientific group that sets standards for medicines in the U.S.  He believes pharmacies around the world should be more strictly regulated.
 
I think the best approach is protecting the market in every country where the regulatory authorities in those markets have ultimate responsibilities - either in the field or in laboratories," said Lukulay.

In the United States, as in other countries, compounding pharmacies often step in to fill gaps in critical drug supplies, such as vaccines, and they are widely seen as an integral part of the pharmaceutical industry.  All the more reason - many health experts say - for them to be more strictly regulated.

You May Like

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Works to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Smithsonian senior research botanist Vicki Funk says ultimate goal is 'trying to get one-half of the diversity of plant life on Earth at the genus level in two years' More

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

Report from member of British think tank says Russian extradition requests keep targets from traveling More

US Lawmakers Weigh Turkish Anti-terror Moves

Turkey’s two-pronged campaign against Islamic State militants, Kurdish PKK forces provokes mixed reactions on Capitol Hill More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponentsi
X
Henry Ridgwell
July 28, 2015 9:53 PM
A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Moves to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction. The last such event was caused by an asteroid 66 million years ago. It killed off the dinosaurs and practically everything else. So scientists are in a race against time to classify the estimated 11 million species alive today. So far only 2 million are described by science, and researchers are worried many will disappear before they even have a name. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Scientists: One-Dose Malaria Cure is Possible

Scientists have long been trying to develop an effective protection and cure for malaria - one of the deadliest diseases that affects people in tropical areas, especially children. As the World Health Organization announces plans to begin clinical trials of a promising new vaccine, scientists in South Africa report that they too are at an important threshold. George Putic reports, they are testing a compound that could be a single-dose cure for malaria.
Video

Video Special Olympics Athletes Meet International Friends

The Special Olympics are underway in Los Angeles, California, with athletes from 165 countries participating in an event that gives people with intellectual disabilities the chance to take part in an international competition. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports that for athletes and their families, it's also an opportunity to make new friends in an international setting.
Video

Video 'New York' Magazine Features 35 Cosby Accusers

The latest issue of 'New York' magazine features 35 women who say they were drugged and raped by film and television celebrity Bill Cosby. The women are aged from 44 to 80 and come from different walks of life and races. The magazine interviewed each of them separately, but Zlatica Hoke reports their stories are similar.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Iran Nuclear Pact Wins Few New US Congressional Backers

Later this week, President Barack Obama returns from a trip to Africa to confront a U.S. Congress roiled by the nuclear accord with Iran, an agreement that has received the blessing of the U.N. Security Council. Days of intensive lobbying and testimony by top administration officials have won few new congressional supporters of the pact. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.
Video

Video Racially Diverse Spider-Man Takes Center Stage

Whether it’s in a comic book or on the big screen, fans have always known the man behind the Spider-Man mask as Peter Parker. But that is changing, at least in the comic book world. Marvel Comics announced that a character called Miles Morales will replace Peter Parker as Spider-Man in a new comic book series. He is half Latino, half African American, and he is quite popular among comic book fans. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports from Los Angeles.
Video

Video Critics of Japan Defense Policy Focus on Okinawa

In Okinawa, many locals have long complained that Tokyo places an unfair burden on the tiny island by locating most of Japan's U.S. military bases there. As Japan's government moves toward strengthening and expanding the country's defense policies, opponents of those plans are joining local protesters in Okinawa, voicing concern about where the country is headed. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from Okinawa.
Video

Video IS Uses Chemical Weapons in Syrian Attack

Islamic State militants have added a new weapon in their arsenal of fear: chemical weapons. VOA Kurdish service reporter Zana Omer was on the scene within hours of a recent attack in Hasakah, Syria, and has details of the subsequent investigation, in this report narrated by Miguel Amaya.
Video

Video Historic Symbol Is Theme of Vibrant New Show

A new exhibit in Washington is paying tribute to the American flag with a wide and eclectic selection of artwork that uses the historic symbol as its central theme. VOA’s Julie Taboh was at the DC Chamber of Commerce for the show’s opening.

VOA Blogs