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Meningitis toll rises; pharmacy owners sued

BOSTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) - Executives at the Boston-area pharmacy whose steroid shots have been linked to a deadly U.S. meningitis outbreak have been sued in a bid to freeze their personal assets, while the death toll in the scandal rose to 21, with 268 cases of infection reported.

Peter McGrath, a lawyer who is a former federal prosecutor, said he was spearheading a civil case that blames Massachusetts-based NECC and company officers Barry and Lisa Cadden and Greg Conigliaro for the tainted drugs. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of an unnamed plaintiff in Middlesex County Superior Court in suburban Boston, court records show.

"We want to pierce the corporate veil and go after the individuals," McGrath said Friday in a telephone interview.

Fourteen new cases of fungal meningitis in patients who received the contaminated shots for back pain were reported on Friday, bringing the total to 268, and the death toll rose by one to 21, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

There were four new cases reported in both Michigan and Florida, one each in Indiana, Ohio and Virginia, and three in Tennessee, which has been the hardest hit of the 16 states with confirmed cases. The latest death was in Michigan, its fifth.

There have also been three cases of peripheral infections from injections into joints.

Florida Surgeon General John Armstrong said NECC would no longer be allowed to do business in the state.

"The company will cease to operate as a pharmacy in our state, immediately," Armstrong said. "Further, the NECC may never re-apply for a pharmacy permit in the state of Florida."

U.S. health regulators confirmed on Thursday the presence of the deadly Exserohilum fungus in vials of the NECC steroid used for the pain injections. They estimate that as many as 14,000 people may have been exposed to the contaminated medication.

Three potentially contaminated lots of the drug, methylprednisolone, were shipped to 76 facilities in 23 states. After confirming contamination in one of the three lots, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the CDC said they were checking the other two lots for the fungus, as well as additional injectable NECC drugs as a precautionary measure.

A Tennessee clinic that received more potentially contaminated steroid than any facility in the nation has temporarily closed to cope with the fallout from the outbreak. The Nashville clinic received 2,000 vials of the NECC drug.

Federal authorities are investigating how NECC supplied hospitals, clinics and other healthcare providers with large orders of compounded drugs and whether it violated state laws regulating pharmacies.

The FDA and CDC said that about 97 percent of potentially exposed patients have been contacted so far. The agencies cautioned doctors and patients to be on the lookout for potential meningitis symptoms for months after injections.

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