Kate Healy was visiting her grandparents in Cape Breton after finishing her summer job as a camp counsellor when she woke up with a fever, tense muscles and purplish spots on her knees. Figuring it must be the flu, Healy, then 16, said she didn’t think it was anything to be worried about until later that afternoon when she felt extremely weak, and the spots had spread all over her legs. She was rushed to a rural hospital but the medical team there couldn’t provide a definitive diagnosis; Healy was then airlifted to a larger hospital, in critical condition.
Within 24 hours, Healy’s parents were told their daughter may not survive. The cause? A serious bacterial infection that causes meningitis B, a form of invasive meningococcal disease. “My condition was deteriorating fast. That’s the scary part. Because it happens so fast, people don’t know what they’re dealing with,” says Healy, who is now 25 and a medical office assistant.
Healy says she was only vaguely aware of meningitis B before she contracted the vaccine-preventable disease—she knew it could cause long-term disability, and that it could sometimes be fatal. In Healy’s case—despite doctors’ fears she could become paralyzed or suffer permanent brain damage—she recovered without these long-lasting effects. She is, however, left with significant scarring on her legs, and she had to have a small portion of her toe removed as a result of septicaemia, a related blood infection. Her emotional recovery has also taken time: “It was a really jarring experience. It’s not something I would wish on my worst enemy. It’s taken years to be completely recovered,” she says.
Time is everything
The danger of meningitis B is it can easily be mistaken for a viral infection, like a cold or flu, and no action is taken until it’s too late, says Dr. Christine Palmay, a primary care physician in Toronto. “It’s very hard to diagnose, and it’s rapid. A patient deteriorates within 24 hours, but often you don’t [realize] until the 12-hour mark [that] it’s not something you can just sleep off. By then you’ve lost time,” she says.
Meningitis is caused by inflammation of the membrane that covers the brain and the spinal cord. The initial signs of the disease are fever, headache, stiff neck, vomiting and lethargy within the first 12 hours, and it’s usually not until the child develops a rash and/or becomes non-responsive that they are taken for emergency care, she says. “The best way to avoid an emergency is to be preventative,” says Dr. Palmay. “In a time when everything is uncertain and nothing is guaranteed, we can take control of immunization.”
Taking a proactive approach
When Healy contracted meningitis B, there were no vaccines available in Canada for that particular type of meningitis-causing bacteria. Thankfully that has now changed, but immunization against meningitis B is not included in Canada’s routine childhood vaccination schedule. So even if your child received a meningitis vaccine, they may be missing coverage for meningitis B. “The chances of contracting meningitis B are quite low but mortality is quite high,” says Dr. Palmay. She says she always discusses this potentially devastating infectious disease with parents and recommends vaccinating their child against it. “When you look at the number of cases, you may not think it’s worth it; but if you look at the consequences and [when you consider] it’s your child, it’s vital,” says Dr. Palmay.
Between 2013 and 2017, about 550 cases of invasive meningococcal disease were reported in Canada, with type B causing the majority of cases. But for those who contract the disease, up to one in 10 cases can be fatal, and of those who survive, up to one in five may be left with a long-term disability, such as hearing loss and permanent neurological damage, she says.
According to Dr. Palmay, children under the age of two and adolescents are most at risk for contracting the disease. Infants are at risk since they have fragile immunization systems and adolescents are at a higher risk based on behaviours, she says. The disease lays dormant in people’s oral orifices, like the mouth and nose, and can be transmitted by close contact, such as kissing, sharing cups or cigarettes, and by sneezing and coughing. Healy says doctors suspect she contracted the disease while at camp, since staff and campers are in close proximity. “You can get it from sharing [drinking] glasses and I’m sure I did,” says Healy.
Talk to your doctor about vaccination options to help protect your child against meningitis B and visit www.missingb.ca for more information.