Seven people have lost their lives after contracting a rare fungal infection following medical procedures in Mexico, according to the latest report from federal officials. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stated that these individuals had received procedures under epidural anesthesia in Matamoros, a city in Mexico’s Tamaulipas State. The outbreak was associated with two closed-down clinics, named River Side Surgical Center and Clinica K-3.
The CDC issued an alert urging anyone who had undergone epidural anesthesia at these clinics between January 1 and May 13, 2023, to be vigilant about the risk of fungal meningitis. The agency reported that there were 161 suspected cases without symptoms, 15 suspected cases with symptoms, and 10 probable cases under investigation, in addition to the confirmed nine cases and the seven deaths.
To ensure the safety of patients, the CDC advised individuals who had received epidural anesthesia at the mentioned clinics to visit urgent care, a health center, or an emergency room for testing, even if they did not experience any symptoms. Those who tested positive would be prescribed anti-fungal medications, while those who tested negative would be advised to monitor their symptoms closely for any signs of infection, which could be fatal.
The CDC also emphasized the importance for healthcare providers to report any suspected cases of fungal meningitis, including those possibly related to this outbreak, to their respective state or local health departments.
Fungal meningitis cannot be transmitted between individuals. Its symptoms include a stiff neck, light sensitivity, vomiting and nausea, fever, and changes in mental status. Unlike bacterial meningitis, fungal meningitis develops over several weeks or even longer.
According to the Mayo Clinic, fungal meningitis is not commonly seen in the United States and can be contracted by inhaling fungal spores found in soil, decaying wood, and bird droppings. It mimics acute bacterial meningitis and is often observed in individuals with weakened immune systems, such as those with AIDS. Without proper treatment using antifungal medication, it can result in death, and in some cases, the infection may return even after treatment.
The CDC advisory also underlined that patients who had been treated at the affected clinics might not exhibit symptoms but could still test positive for the infection. The agency warned that fungal meningitis could initially manifest as a mild illness but quickly escalate into a life-threatening condition. To increase awareness among staff and healthcare providers, they recommended sharing the CDC webpage on the situation and the recommended tests.
Despite the CDC’s alert several weeks ago, the exact species of fungus responsible for the infections remains unidentified, as does the specific cause of the outbreak.
In response to severe illnesses and deaths caused by meningitis infections, the CDC issued a Level 2 travel advisory in May. However, it clarified that fungal meningitis cases are not contagious and cannot spread to other individuals. The advisory explicitly recommended canceling any elective procedure involving an epidural injection of an anesthetic in Matamoros, Mexico until there is evidence that the risk of infection at these clinics has been eliminated.
In a related development, the Texas Department of State Health Services released a similar alert stating that they had identified at least five infected patients.
Although Matamoros is a popular destination for medical tourism due to its affordability and accessibility, it is worth noting that Tamaulipas is one of six Mexican states where the U.S. Department of State advises against all travel due to crime and kidnappings. In fact, an incident in March involved the abduction of four American tourists in broad daylight, resulting in three fatalities. The victims were traveling to Mexico for cosmetic surgery.
This article was written with contributions from Bill Pan.