RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
As we've been reporting, the Centers for Disease Control now say the number of people exposed to a rare type of meningitis has jumped to 14,000. Nationwide, 170 people are sick; 14 have died. The CDC also says symptoms may actually be dormant for months, not weeks. That announcement has left many to wait and worry. Blake Farmer, of member station WPLN, reports from Nashville.
BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: At Vanderbilt University Medical Center, potential fungal meningitis cases get bumped to the front of the line.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Dr. Phillip, Dr. Baker, with cardiology on line three.
FARMER: Dr. Corey Slovis heads the emergency room and says some have symptoms. Some don't.
DR. COREY SLOVIS: And we've actually had a few people that have had no steroid injection, come requesting a spinal tap because they're worried about having gotten it from another patient - which is impossible.
FARMER: A spinal tap is the sure way doctors can diagnose fungal meningitis. But the CDC recommends the invasive tests only for people who've had the tainted injections, and are showing symptoms. Vanderbilt's Slovis says the side effects of a lumbar puncture - or LP - could get confused for the illness.
SLOVIS: A post-LP headache makes one feel very, very similar - or exactly the same - as someone who might have meningitis. As you stand up, you start to feel dizzy; you're having trouble concentrating; you have this intense, pulsating pain.
FARMER: Health officials say they also don't want to overwhelm hospitals with unnecessary procedures. Greg Clucker is trying to follow doctor's orders and stay away from the ER. He got his injections in August. Originally, health officials thought people were out of the woods after four weeks. Now, they say symptoms might take months to show up, so he's back in panic mode.
GREG CLUCKER: I've stayed up at nights - getting on the Internet, researching everything, learn what I can about this. The problem is - you know - you wake up one morning, and you've got a headache. Then you start checking for other symptoms.
FARMER: Clucker has reason for concern. Nearly a third of the cases in the country are traced back to the same Nashville clinic where he got his injections. Almost half of the deaths are attributed to the site, which received tainted steroid doses from a Massachusetts pharmacy company.
CLUCKER: Anytime you have a procedure done, there's a risk involved. I understand that. But I didn't think the risk was going to involve possibly getting meningitis.
FARMER: Clucker says he'd love to have the peace of mind that would come from a negative test. The waiting can be unbearable.
BECKY ADAMS: You think, tomorrow I'm going to wake up with this horrible headache and - you know, not be able to walk or something.
FARMER: Becky Adams of Mount Juliet, Tenn., says she worked herself into a tizzy thinking of the debilitating illness, but she almost feared the treatment more. She read about the horrible side effects of the anti-fungal regimen. That's one reason people who were exposed aren't automatically put on drugs. But on Tuesday, Adams talked herself into a trip to the ER. She found herself surrounded by a dozen others, waiting on a spinal tap. And in 45 minutes she had preliminary results.
ADAMS: I know that they had to send them off to the CDC, and that they would culture them and look for growth over a couple of weeks. I'm not worried about it. You know, at this point, my headache is gone - magically.
FARMER: Adams had been keeping her potential exposure to herself. In fact, we met at a coffee shop instead of her house, because she still hadn't told her three kids.
You didn't want to worry anybody with this?
ADAMS: Mm-mm. Mm-mm. I knew that others would be - family, in particular -would probably go nuts.
FARMER: While Adams feels relieved, physicians say the fungus could still show up later. They just don't know much about it. CDC officials say they're charting new territory in public health.
For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.