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Steroid shot epidemic

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SAGINAW, MI (WNEM) -

Dramatic evidence suggests a nationwide fungal meningitis outbreak is not over.

In fact, it's only getting worse. Nowhere is that more true, than in Michigan.

The illness has made nearly 750 Americans sick. Experts say the injections were tainted with black mold.

Brian Kennedy, of Ubly, went to a local clinic last year looking for relief to ease his debilitating back pain, but it was that very treatment that has left him wanting his health back. 

Kennedy says his health was stolen from him last August when he went to clinic in Brighton for a routine steroid injection. A shot directly into his spinal column.

The injection he trusted to treat all of that gave him fungal meningitis, a life-threatening infection. He wonders whether he'll ever be cured of it.

"They don't know if this thing could come back in 10 years or something, creep back up, I can't see me getting any solid answers out of doctors," said Kennedy. "If my pain level is at an eight, it's a good day, but it's usually running at a nine or 10, even with all the oxycodone."

To hear him talk, it is hard it's to believe Kennedy is actually recovering.

He says the heavy antibiotics used to keep the meningitis at bay are like a sledgehammer on his system. Among the long list of side effects, weight loss. He's lost 60 pounds and most of his hair.

To date, 741 people across the country have been sickened after receiving steroid shots from the New England Compounding Center in Massachusetts.

The illness has killed a total of 55 nationwide. Those shots were contaminated with black mold.

Michigan stands as the hardest hit state in that outbreak. So far, 261 people have been stricken with fungal meningitis.

Tragically, an additional 18 Michiganders have died.

Among those 18, doctors say the black mold was able to reach the brain and cause an infection, and in some cases, a debilitating stroke.

So in many ways, Kennedy was lucky.

After 21 days in the hospital, Kennedy was eventually strong enough to have surgery to treat the infection, but now has to wear a body brace.

So what led to so many people in Michigan dying and getting sick? WNEM had hoped to pose some question to Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette.

His office was recently granted a request for a multi-county grand jury to investigate whether the New England Compounding Center broke any state laws. But the Attorney General's office declined a request for an interview citing the grand jury proceedings.

The I-Team did sit down with Doug Peters, a Detroit area attorney who has studied why Michigan is leading the nation in cases. He says the answer is two-fold. First, Peters says a pattern of unsanitary conditions at the N.E.C.C. facility in Massachusetts.

"In some of the cases, we've seen bottles of this steroid stuff that had black goop floating in it, and that goop was black mold. Remember, no preservatives, that was the marketing angle of this company," said Peters.

Peters says the second culprit is marketing, targeted directly at our state, leading clinics to administer the tainted drug in huge numbers.

State and federal investigators say there was a lot wrong with the New England Compounding Center. Instead filling a prescription for a specific person, Peters says N.E.C.C. it in deplorable conditions.

And not having any insurance will have the biggest impact on victims like Kennedy who are barely making it.

"Everything's been wiped out - the semi retirement I kinda had with medicare. The bills are killing us," said Kennedy. "It's really disgusting that they do something like that, and to knowingly let it be that dirty and that you're gonna be putting that into people, over money - I don't know. They've ruined my life. I'll never be the same again. I can't work anymore."

Doug Peters says there is evidence doctors around the country were sending in prescriptions for nonexistent people just so they could get that steroid, which turned out to be tainted, on the cheap.

Meanwhile, Kennedy is part of a class-action suit.

But it's unlikely he will see any money to help with his medical bills.

In addition to the New England Compounding Center's insurance company refusing to pay any claims, the company's assets are expected to be depleted in bankruptcy court before victims will see a dime.

Copyright 2013 WNEM (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.

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