Nearly two-dozen have died as disease is traced back to fungal contaminate at New England compounding company

The death toll from a rare form on fungal meningitis linked to contaminated steroid shots prepared by a Massachusetts pharmacy has now risen to 23, health officials said Saturday.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted in its latest update that a further two additional patients are now known to have been given the fatal injection. It also increased the total number of reported cases to 284.

Some 16 states have now been affected by the widening health scare, thought caused by batches of infected medications shipped out by the New England Compounding Center (NECC) – a pharmacy compounder near Boston that could face criminal charges over the outbreak.

On Thursday it was confirmed that a fungal contaminate found in a sealed vial of the steroid methylprednisolone acetate at the company matched that blamed for the 20-plus deaths.

All the victims had all received steroid shots made by the NECC, mostly to treat back pain. As many as 14,000 people received injections derived from batches mixed at the pharmacy.

Earlier this week, federal agents from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) raided NECC's premises in the Boston suburb of Framingham.

Accompanied by local police officers, the raid came amid growing concerns that other medications sent out by the company may be contaminated, a concern that could drastically escalate the national health scare.

The pharmacy compounder has a checkered history of violating health and safety standards, having been cited on numerous occasions by the FDA prior to the latest outbreak.

As well as the prospect of potential criminal action, the company is already the subject of numerous civil lawsuits by those affected by the meningitis outbreak. It is thought that at least 10 different complainants have now lodged legal documents suing the NECC.

© Guardian News and Media 2012

[Image via Agence France-Presse]