Tennessee Takes Spotlight At U.S. Senate Hearing - NewsChannel5.com | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

Tennessee Takes Spotlight At U.S. Senate Hearing

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Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander asks question during a Senate committee meeting on the meningitis outbreak. Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander asks question during a Senate committee meeting on the meningitis outbreak.
Dr. Marion Kainer was thanked for her part in uncovering the cause of the meningitis outbreak. Dr. Marion Kainer was thanked for her part in uncovering the cause of the meningitis outbreak.

by Heather Graf

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Health officials in Tennessee got a big pat on the back from lawmakers in Washington. The praise came during Thursday's U.S. Senate hearing on the fungal meningitis outbreak.

Lawmakers said a lot went wrong during the outbreak that has claimed 32 lives so far. 

"Why do we even have an FDA, and why do you even have a job at the FDA if you can't stop back-alley, large-scale drug manufacturing that it knows about and writes letters about," said Kansas Senator Pat Roberts.

It was one of several tough questions asked of FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg.

Their treatment of her was in sharp contrast to that of another doctor called to testify, Dr. Marion Kainer of the Tennessee Health Department.

"I'm sure I speak for all of the committee. You have our highest praise and thank you for your diligence and for being on top of this," Committee Chair Senator Tom Harkin told Kainer.

Kainer is a Nashville-based doctor who refused to go home and instead slept in her office as she worked to identify the source of the rare form of fungal meningitis.

She was the first to trace the outbreak to contaminated steroid injections produced at the New England Compounding Center in Massachusetts. 

"Fungal meningitis is extremely rare," she said. "One of our greatest challenges was knowing just what we were dealing with as more and more patients fell ill."

Kainer was one of several references to Tennessee made during the hearing. Dr. April Pettit from Vanderbilt Medical Center was credited for ordering additional tests on one patient's spinal fluid to check for meningitis.

"I want to give particular credit to Dr. April Pettit, an infectious disease doctor at Vanderbilt University, who identified the first meningitis case and notified the state health department," said Dr. Beth Bell with the Centers For Disease Control. "If Dr. Pettit had not acted like she did, it is likely that many more patients would have been exposed."

Lawmakers called both Pettit and Kainer heroes whose actions saved lives.

Bell's testimony also mentioned one of the Tennesseans who lost their lives in the outbreak.

"Diana Reed of Brentwood, Tennessee, was the primary caretaker of her husband Wayne, who suffers from Lou Gehrig Disease," said Dr. Bell. "Diana was healthy and physically active, but after a neck injury she turned to steroid injection to help with her pain. Tragically, Diana received a contaminated injection and became the third Tennessean to die of fungal meningitis."

Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander said families like Reed's have been constantly on his mind.

"As much as I'd like to focus my time on whose fault it was, I think the families of those who are hurting in Tennessee would like me to find out how we can make sure this doesn't happen again," he said.

Lawmakers also heard from the top lobbyist representing compounding pharmacies. He condemned the actions of the New England Compounding Center where the tainted drugs were produced, but said tougher laws were not needed to regulate the industry.

Instead, he said state and federal agencies need to do a better job enforcing the laws currently on the books. He said the FDA legally could have – and should have – shut down NECC years ago.

Email: hgraf@newschannel5.com

(The Associated Press contributed to this Report.)

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