This year, a company in Framingham, Mass., the New England Compounding Center, shipped 17,676 steroid injections for back pain to clinics in 23 states. Some of the injections were contaminated with a fungus that has led to a meningitis outbreak in 10 states, in which 119 people have been sickened and 11 have died. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that some 13,000 people got the injections, starting May 21. The outbreak has revealed breakdowns in the oversight of businesses known as compounding pharmacies.
Compounding is a traditional part of pharmacy practice. It means that a pharmacist combines, mixes or alters ingredients to create a medication for an individual patient. Usually, it is done to prepare a medicine that is not commercially available, such as for a patient with an allergy to a specific ingredient. However, in the past two decades, businesses with pharmacy licenses have sprung up to use compounding for the production of medicines in quantities rivaling that of drug manufacturers.