Home Canadian News Ottawa family wants province to vaccinate against meningitis B

Ottawa family wants province to vaccinate against meningitis B

Ottawa family wants province to vaccinate against meningitis B

Their daughter, a student at Queen’s University, almost died last fall. Now an Ottawa family wants the Ontario government to protect others.

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Megan Plamondon did her usual Sunday long run with other members of Queen’s University’s varsity triathlon team last Nov. 12.

The 19-year-old remembers feeling fine during the 17-kilometre run. When she got home, she was tired and a bit achy, but that didn’t seem unusual — it was a long run, after all.

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But then her condition quickly worsened. Eventually, she couldn’t keep food or water down, she had terrible headaches, was hyper sensitive to light, and her neck was sore.

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Two days after that run, she was fighting for her life in a Kingston hospital with meningitis B.

Plamondon and her Ottawa family are joining calls for the Ontario government and public health officials to raise awareness about the dangers of meningitis B — especially for higher-risk post-secondary students. And they want the province to follow the lead of two Maritime provinces and make meningitis B vaccines more widely available, for free, to post-secondary students.

Plamondon’s parents rushed to their daughter’s side in Kingston when she was admitted to the hospital. She was never alone during the 10 days she was in hospital on intravenous antibiotics. Meningitis B, while rare, can be deadly or leave patients with lifelong health issues, and it can go downhill quickly.

“Bacterial meningitis is like lightning, you can be dead within 24 to 48 hours,” said her mother, Marian Coke. “The first few days are horrible. You don’t know if they are going to live.”

Once their daughter turned a corner and they knew she would survive, Coke said, they worried about the long-term impact of the illness.

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“About 30 per cent have significant side effects.”

For Plamondon, many of those days in hospital are a blur, but she survived her bout of meningitis B and has no serious side effects. She is back in class and slowly beginning to train again. The headaches have not entirely gone away, though, so she is taking things easy.

She was lucky, and knows it could have easily gone another way. And she worries that others will be at risk because there is so little awareness of the illness. A second Queen’s student also became infected last fall. Plamondon said she would have gone to the hospital sooner if she had been aware of the symptoms.

“I think my mom saved my life. I thought I had the flu but she knew a stiff neck was a major symptom (of meningitis). There should be more awareness.”

Coke said she soon learned about other cases of meningitis B among Canadian university students — some of them deadly.

Meningitis B is not common. In Canada, there are typically about 200 cases a year. There were 26 confirmed cases in Ontario in 2022. Manitoba has recently reported a higher than normal number of cases — eight within a month, compared to six in a more typical year. Some countries around the world have also reported post-pandemic spikes in cases.

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But post-secondary students are at higher risk than the general public, largely because of their living situations and lifestyle.

In 2021, Kai Matthews, a 19-year-old athlete and first-year kinesiology student at Acadia University in Nova Scotia contracted and quickly died from meningitis B.

His family formed an organization, BforKai, to advocate for all Canadian post-secondary students to be protected against meningitis B — the most deadly form of meningitis — through provincially funded vaccination programs, in addition to more awareness of the illness.

Matthews’ father, Norrie, said they were blindsided by Kai’s illness because they believed he was fully vaccinated against meningitis B. In Nova Scotia, like Ontario and other provinces, Grade 7 students receive a meningitis vaccine. But it doesn’t cover meningitis B. There is another vaccine for that, but many people don’t know it exists or that their child might need it, he said.

The advocacy is helping the family cope with their son’s loss, said Matthews.

“Trying to advocate, educate and vaccinate against meningitis B is kind of the only way I can move forward after losing Kai — to try to take something positive from this tragedy.” Among the organization’s efforts was fundraising to vaccinate 300 students at Acadia University.

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In 2022, two students at Dalhousie University in Halifax contracted meningitis B. One of them died. Around the same time, a student at Saint Mary’s University, also in Halifax, died from meningitis B.

Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island have become the first provinces to recently announce meningitis B support programs for post-secondary students, in part because of parent advocacy efforts.

Matthews would like to see Ontario follow suit, especially after the two recent cases at Queen’s. “I really hope Ontario can make this move to support students. That would be a significant step in moving forward.”

A vaccine against meningitis B has been approved by Health Canada since 2014. It is a two-dose vaccine available for about $150 a dose. Initially, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization only recommended the vaccine for those at highest risk because of immune compromised or transplant patients. Last year, they expanded their recommendation to include university-age students, said Matthews.

He said that change should encourage more provinces to offer the vaccine to post-secondary students at no cost.

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“Now that we have NACI supporting this, there is no reason why provinces shouldn’t support vaccination of first-year students,” he said.

Matthews said provinces should offer the vaccine for free to all post-secondary students, something P.E.I. now does. Initially, the program was for first-year students who are more likely to live in residence.

Coke noted that Megan is a second-year student and doesn’t live in residence, but does live in student housing, with five other students, meaning the risk factors are the same. She would also like to see Ontario make the vaccines available for free to students. She believes offering them to Grade 12 students would offer the most protection.

“I would love to see it made as an option for kids in Grade 12. At least they would have an awareness that it exists and of the symptoms,” said Coke. She would also like to see public health officials raise awareness, especially on campus, about the disease, its symptoms and the vaccine.

Some physicians are now talking about the vaccine with patients who they know are heading to university or college, which is a good, said Coke.

“It is a terrifying disease. I would like to increase awareness. It really could save lives.”

The Ministry of Health did not immediately respond to a question about whether Ontario is considering funding meningitis B vaccines for post-secondary students.

Megan Plamondon continues to recover from meningitis B Photo by Family /Supplied

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