Updated: Monday, 16 May 2011, 3:09 PM EDT
Published : Friday, 13 May 2011, 4:14 PM EDT
INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) - I-Team 8 has uncovered young girls in Indiana dying from a product used by millions of women every day. 24-Hour News 8 Anchor Karen Hensel is leading the investigation that took her from Indiana to New York to the nation’s capital demanding answers.
Toxic shock deaths made headlines in 1980 when 38 women died in one year. We thought it was over but I-Team 8 found other recent cases right here in Indiana. The bedroom of Amy Elifritz tells her life story. It is one of stuffed animals, tickets to her last movie and a birthday card. Her mom, Lisa Elifritz, says "She was always on the run. She always had things to do." A graphic design student life as seen through her camera lens lines her walls.
Her mom reflects, "She had 20 years to get an entire life in." Amy was a mamma's girl who "wanted to live with her mom the rest of her life" — a life that would end, literally, in a matter of days.
Her mom remembers, "Wednesday evening she began to throw up. That was her only symptom." Her temperature soared to 103.2. Ibuprofen brought it back to normal within 30 minutes. The next morning, Thursday, she had diarrhea but was feeling better. Her mom says, "She spent the day chatting, talking on her computer with Facebook, texting."
On Friday morning, she was rushed to the emergency room, her blood pressure was dangerously low yet her was pulse was high.
A key question was asked repeatedly. Elifritz says, "Everybody said when was your last period? And she said, ‘Now.’"
Amy was admitted in fair condition. Within 24 hours they were told, "There's a chance she could die."
Amy was dying of toxic shock syndrome.
She was on her period and using tampons. Doctors and nurses asked the key question — when her last period was — but no one was relating her symptoms to toxic shock. Her mom says, "They just kept looking at us saying, ‘We don't know.’ ‘We don't know what is happening,’ ‘We don't know why.’”
She got to intensive care around 1 p.m. and by 3 p.m. she was going into adult respiratory distress. She had the tell-tale rash of toxic shock syndrome
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This was the first time the family heard the words toxic shock syndrome.
Her mom remembers their final moment together. She says, "They put the vent in and they sedated her and that was the last we spoke to her."
Her organs failed and Amy would die within hours. She walked into the hospital but within two days she died.
Hospital records state she died from toxic shock syndrome — "tampon related.” Her death certificate cites toxic shock syndrome but calls her death "normal," meaning not suicide or homicide.
Experts say toxic shock syndrome can begin within hours of wearing a tampon. It's caused by a toxin that builds. Some scientists say changing the tampon does not stop it, saying it just begins again where it left off. Experts say the tampon needs to be removed for eight hours for the toxin to dissipate. Girls need to wear a pad at night.
Toxic shock made big headlines in the 1980s when 38 women died that year from Rely tampons. What has changed?
Three of four synthetic fibers were taken off the market, yet one remains: viscose rayon. It's what makes a tampon absorbent.
I-Team 8 wanted to know: How could young girls still be dying 30 years later? So, our investigative team went to New York to ask one of the world’s top scientists for answers.
Dr. Philip Tierno is director of Clinical Microbiology & Immunology at New York University Langone Medical Center.
"Toxic shock has not disappeared. In fact, the incidences are probably the same, believe it or not," he said.
Dr. Tierno is one of few to conduct independent research into the tampon. His first tests were 31 years ago on Rely Tampons. Rely was test marketed in two cities: Rochester, N.Y. and Fort Wayne, Ind. Tierno has kept the sample box sent to his home for the last 30 years.
He sounded the alarm years ago, sending this letter October 10, 1980 to the FDA, Centers for Disease Control and Prevent, and Proctor & Gamble. The letter explained his research and urged all four synthetics to be removed.
Three of four were removed. But the fourth, viscose rayon, remains.
Tierno and others say the viscose rayon is what is still killing young girls. He says those under 20 are most vulnerable to the illness.
“If the tampon manufacturers know that, why don't they take the viscose rayon out?” Karen Hensel asked.
“That's a questions I have had the entire time I have been involved in toxic shock syndrome since 1980… 31 years necessary?," Tierno conceded.
Meanwhile, Lisa Elifritz tends to the pink tulips on her daughter's grave, hoping for change. She wants today's doctors to at least know the signs: headache, sore throat, cough, nausea and vomiting, skin rash. Standing at her daughter's headstone, she softly says, "She shouldn't be here. It should have someone else’s name on it. Somebody really old. She just shouldn’t be here."
Amy Elifritz was 20.
The state of Indiana has only been tracking TSS for the last year and a half - on an issue that's been around for the last 30 years. What does that mean to the overall numbers? Tuesday on 24-Hour News 8 at 11 p.m. we find more cases, more young girls, and as we begin to ask questions our investigation is already reaching Congress. The investigation will continue to unfold Tuesday night at 11.