- Three Americans have recently died from fungal meningitis linked to medical tourism in Mexico.
- The CDC says that more than 200 patients who got treatment at two clinics could be at risk.
- Fungal meningitis is a rare but life-threatening infection of the brain and spinal cord.
The CDC issued a health alert last week warning that three people in the US have died from fungal infections after traveling to Mexico for cosmetic procedures, and more than 200 other patients may also be at risk.
Since January 2023, the CDC has identified 14 suspected, 11 probable, and two confirmed US cases of fungal meningitis that have been linked to cosmetic procedures performed in Mexico. The agency says that 3 of these people have died, and 212 US residents in 25 states could be at risk of infection, which can appear weeks after a procedure.
The infections have all been traced back to two clinics in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico: River Side Surgical Center and Clinica K-3. All the impacted patients had procedures under epidural anesthesia, when medicine is injected into the space around the spinal cord. The exact procedures that were performed have not been specified.
One of the patients who died was Lauren Robinson, a 29-year-old mother of four from Texas, who started developing symptoms months after her unspecified cosmetic procedure in February, her husband told local news station WFAA.
“She was great, the results were great, everything was good, she started going back to work, then she started constantly telling me, ‘I have a headache, something is not right,'” her husband, Garrett Robinson told the outlet in May while his wife was still in the hospital. She died on May 31, according to Fox News.
What is fungal meningitis?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), fungal meningitis is rare, but can be life threatening and requires immediate medical care.
Meningitis, the inflammation of the fluid and membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord, can be caused by a number of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites. In this case, laboratories in the US and Mexico have detected evidence of a species of fungi called Fusarium solani in the cerebrospinal fluid of patients.
While investigators don’t know exactly what happened yet, it is possible that contaminated medical equipment that was not properly cleaned introduced the fungi into the bodies of patients. The WHO says that healthcare-associated fungal meningitis outbreaks like this one have previously occurred among patients who received spinal anesthesia, like the patients in this current outbreak of cases.
Early symptoms of meningitis may be similar to the flu, according to the Mayo Clinic, and can develop over several hours or days. More severe symptoms of meningitis include fever, headache, a stiff neck, nausea and vomiting, eyes that are sensitive to light, and confusion.
The CDC says that all patients who underwent medical procedures at River Side Surgical Center or Clinica K-3 in Matamoros, Mexico, since January 1, 2023, should be evaluated for fungal meningitis, whether or not they have any symptoms. Both clinics closed on May 13th, according to the New York Times.
Medical tourism to Mexico comes with risks
Millions of Americans go to Mexico for medical procedures every year, eager to save on healthcare costs — Patients Without Borders has calculated that Americans can expect to save 40% to 65% on medical treatments in Mexico, on everything from cosmetic to dental to cancer treatments. But the practice has risks.
Earlier this year, four Americans were kidnapped, and two were killed, while on a trip to Mexico for cosmetic surgery.
And while Mexico has a robust medical system with excellent providers that follow US standards, there are also sub-par providers that may skirt hygiene practices leaving patients vulnerable to infections, just like you’d find any country.
Medical tourists may be particularly at risk because they may not know how to properly research the credentials of doctors in another country, or they may be exposed to new pathogens that are not common in their home country. Medical tourists may also be at risk for traveling too soon after their procedures, the CDC says.
Mexico isn’t the only country where medical tourism can be risky. Americans have also experienced complications getting cosmetic surgeries abroad in the Dominican Republic, China, and Turkey.