The number of deaths in Tennessee related to the recent fungal meningitis outbreak was at six Monday afternoon, but there had been no local cases reported at major area hospitals, according to health officials speaking Tuesday.
If a case of fungal meningitis is confirmed at Johnson City Medical Center, media outlets will be alerted, said Ed Herbert, Mountain States Health Alliance spokesman.
No cases of fungal meningitis have been reported at JCMC but there was a suspected case a few weeks ago. Herbert said that case was confirmed not to be fungal meningitis.
Herbert said the hospital system is taking the national fungal meningitis outbreak seriously and monitoring for the illness.
Jim Wozniak, spokesman for Wellmont Health System, said there have been no confirmed cases of fungal meningitis, though the hospital system is taking precautions and is on high alert due to the outbreak.
According to the Associated Press, the number of people sickened by the deadly meningitis outbreak has now reached 119 cases, including 11 deaths.
New Jersey is the 10th state to report at least one illness. The other states involved in the outbreak are Michigan, Virginia, Indiana, Florida, Maryland, Minnesota, North Carolina and Ohio.
Officials have tied the outbreak of rare fungal meningitis to steroid shots for back pain. The steroid was made by a specialty pharmacy in Massachusetts. At least one contaminated vial was found at the company.
Dr. John Dreyzhener, Tennessee’s health commissioner, said Tuesday the total number of cases in the state has increased by four and now stands at 39. The cases all stem from steroid injections for back pain and officials say evidence points to contaminated medicine as the cause of the rare disease.
Meningitis, an inflammation of the tissues and fluid around the brain and spinal cord, can be caused by bacteria or viruses. It can spread by exchange of sweating or saliva with an infected person, including kissing, coughing, sneezing or sharing drinking glasses, utensils or cigarettes.
According to the Tennessee Department of Health website, meningococcal disease affects one to three people per 100,000 population and that Tennessee has had around 70 cases per year for the past few years.
According to the site, symptoms of meningococcal meningitis are fever, sudden severe headache, stiff neck, rash, nausea and vomiting. For those infected, it would take approximately two to seven days before they showed signs and symptoms.
A person is also considered contagious from the time they become infected until the bacteria leaves their body. The fungal meningitis is not contagious and was introduced to people via injection.
Meningitis can cause blindness, hearing loss, mental retardation, loss of limbs or death, according to the website.
The fungal meningitis outbreak may be rare but bacterial meningitis is common enough to merit a vaccine. New students at East Tennessee State University are given the option to receive the vaccine each year.
Dr. Lisa Ousley, clinical services director of the Student/University Health Services Clinic at ETSU said the school recommends prior to admission that students get a meningitis vaccine if they have not already received one. The vaccine is not mandatory.
Students who opt not to take the vaccine must sign a waiver acknowledging they decline. This form is included with new student information packets.
“College age students are at an increased risk for this disease, and there’s actually, you know, more than one type of meningitis, by the way, but the one we’re focusing on, the one we’re giving the vaccine for, is the bacterial type of meningitis,” Ousley said. “And because we live in close quarters and we study in close quarters and there’s dormitory living that allows for a greater potential for spread of disease.”
Meningitis has a high mortality rate for those who contract it.
“About 10 to 15 percent of people who contract it will die from it,” Ousley said. “And another 11 to 19 percent approximately will have a serious physical ailment because of it — a loss of limb, deafness, seizures, stroke.”
More students opt not to take the vaccine than request it. There are multiple reasons for this, Ousley said, including expense and lack of knowledge about the seriousness of the disease.
The vaccine costs more than $100 and some insurers do not pay for it.
If students choose to have the vaccine, ETSU can order it and administer the dose at the student clinic.
Ousley said besides the vaccine, ETSU stresses the importance of hand washing and visiting the campus health clinic when sick. Ousley said it is also a good idea to avoid crowds when ill.
“What we hope to do is increase awareness and education and try to have strategies that make it convenient and a positive experience for people to be vaccinated,” she said.
Staff Writer Jennifer Sprouse contributed to this report.