US eventer Darren Chiacchia is battling the rare and deadly infection fungal meningitis, and has also contracted MRSA while in hospital.
Chiacchia, 48, was admitted to hospital last week. He was reportedly feeling ill when he competed at the Plantation Field Horse Trials in Pennsylvania late last month.
A fungal meningitis outbreak in the US has been linked to methylprednisolone acetate steroid shots for back pain, made by the New England Compounding Center, a pharmacy in Massachusetts. The steroid – as well as all of the pharmacy’s products – have been recalled. The US outbreak is now at 119 cases, with 12 deaths.
This type of meningitis can also be acquired through routine work on a farm, as the type of fungus, aspergillum, is commonly found in soil samples. It is not known how Chiacchia contracted the infection.
Officials say as many as 13,000 patients across 23 states may have been injected with the steroid.
Fungal meningitis infects the body’s spinal fluid and the delicate membrane between the brain and the skull. It is not contagious, and can be treated with high-dose intravenous antifungal medications.
Patients have had symptoms generally starting from one to four weeks after receiving the injection. Several people have also suffered strokes that are believed to have been caused by the infection. Symptoms include slight weakness, slightly worsened back pain, high fever, nausea, stiff neck, excruciating headache and sensitivity to light and noise.
While Chiacchia is in hospital, staff are working to keep his farms in Ocala, Florida, and Springville, New York, running. Only family is permitted to visit Chiacchia in hospital.
“Darren is an incredibly strong man, both physically and mentally, and his family and friends are praying that he will fight this awful illness successfully,” said Chiacchia’s business manager Ann Clements of Wellington, Florida.
“He is in constant and terrible pain, and we are all holding steady vigil while we keep his farms running smoothly.”
Chiacchia was on the bronze-medal winning team at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens and the gold-medal winning team at the 2003 Pan American Games.
In March of 2008, Chiacchia was seriously injured on the cross-country of the Red Hills Horse Trials in Florida. His horse Baron Verdi hit a jump and somersaulted, falling on Chiacchia. He was unconscious for nearly two weeks and on a ventilator. A year later, he was back competing at advanced level and won at the Rocking Horse Spring Horse Trials riding his veteran campaigner, the trakehner stallion Windfall II.