Federal regulators have launched a study of the long-term health effects of a lethal fungal meningitis outbreak last fall linked to tainted steroids from a Framingham pharmacy.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday that it would fund a $216,000 study led by Dr. Peter Pappas, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Alabama School of Medicine, who leads a nationwide consortium of scientists who specialize in fungal infections.
Pappas’s team will track 500 patients from the states hardest hit in the outbreak — Indiana, Michigan, Tennessee, and Virginia — said Dr. Mary Brandt, who leads the CDC’s fungal diseases branch.
Overall, the CDC says medications from the New England Compounding Center of Framingham are believed to have sickened 749 people, including 63 who have since died.
A black mold found in the steroids caused a rare form of meningitis in hundreds of the patients, while many others have grappled with painful joint infections and other lingering symptoms. These infections are so unusual and the fungus so hard to detect with current screening methods that regulators, physicians, and scientists have been stymied in devising ways to diagnose and treat many of the patients.
The first phase of the study will last two years, during which patients will be examined three times: an initial visit and follow-up sessions at 6 and 12 weeks, Brandt said. The scientists will note the type of antifungal medication each patient is receiving, side effects from the medications, whether patients who have gone off the medicines have relapsed, and what other symptoms they may have.
“We really don’t know how long to tell them to keep taking the medications,” Brandt said. “It is possible that some may have to take them the rest of their lives.”
Patients infected with other fungal infections, such as Valley Fever meningitis, have had to remain on the medicines for their entire lives, Brandt said.
Physicians have been using three antifungal medications in the outbreak tied to New England Compounding. All of them can have toxic side effects, with some patients hallucinating and suffering blurry vision, bone pain, and rashes.
“As you balance the ability of the medication to kill the organism and the side effects,” the scientists will be trying to determine which drugs work best, Brandt said.
“Are there any patients out there taken off their medications, and they are getting better?” she said. “Are there patients taking a drug and not doing well on that drug? We don’t know the differences among these three drugs in these circumstances.”
If the CDC can get additional financing, it hopes to extend the study two more years, Brandt said.