UVic mourns loss of student to meningococcal disease

Memorial service at University Interfaith Chapel honours memory of Leo Tak-Cheung Chan

Leo Tak-Cheung Chan died Jan. 18

Memorial service at University Interfaith Chapel honours memory of Leo Tak-Cheung Chan

UVic is morning the loss of one of its students who died from meningococcal disease earlier this week.

Leo Tak-Cheung Chan died Jan. 18, after being in hospital for four days with what Vancouver Island Health Authority has reported is meningococcal disease. A memorial took place at the University Interfaith Chapel today, Jan. 25, at 2:30 p.m. Students, faculty and friends were invited to bring photos and memories of Chan to create a collage to send to his parents.

According to the website, UVic worked with the Vancouver Island Health Authority to immediately identify and notify close contacts of the student who are considered at increased risk of exposure to this disease. These individuals have received an antibiotic and vaccine as a precautionary treatment.

“We’re deeply saddened by his [Chan’s] death,” says UVic Communications head Patty Pitts. “This has been very hard on a lot of people, and the university has reached out to offer counselling and support to those affected.”

Pitts says in the 20 years she’s worked at UVic, she has only heard of two other cases of meningococcal disease, and both students lived. After reports of a Norwalk outbreak that involved some university students at a downtown conference only weeks ago, and the break in at UVic Accounting near the beginning of January, Pitts says it’s been a rough start to the year.

Meningococcal disease is a serious and potentially lethal condition. It is caused by the bacteria “meningococcus,” which is present in the throat or nose of approximately 10 per cent of the population without causing any harmful effects. In rare instances, meningococci will overrun the body’s natural defenses causing meningitis, a serious inflammation of the brain and spinal cord, and/or meningococcemia, a widespread infection of the blood and major organs.

Vaccination can prevent four of the five types of meningococcal, but the disease can be highly contagious when spread through close personal contact such as kissing or through the sharing of items such as joints, cigarettes, drinking glasses, water bottles, eating utensils or lipsticks. It is not spread by sitting next to someone who may be infected. Symptoms of meningococcal infection occur suddenly and can include fever, intense headache, nausea and vomiting, stiff neck or back, or a pinpoint rash.

Dr. Murray Fyfe, medical health officer with VIHA, says it’s impossible to answer why Chan, specifically, was struck by the disease. In 2011, B.C. saw about 12 infections province-wide, with two fatalities.

“Right now, we just don’t know why certain people can suddenly become ill to the disease, but we do know this happens very rarely,” says Fyfe. “It’s one of the mysteries around the disease, especially when you consider that 10 per cent of B.C.’s population can carry the bacteria harmlessly in their throats and noses, which is between 200,000 and 400,000 people.”

Fyfe says some “alphabet soup” strains of the disease may be more aggressive than others. Currently, the provincial medical plan will cover a vaccine for strain C for children and adults born after Jan. 1, 1988, since in the 1990s and 2000s meningococcal C was seen commonly amongst children, teens and young adults. People listed as “increased risk” (those who are immuno-compromised, had a spleen removal or had other transplants) are covered for a special quadrivalent vaccine, which protects against strains A, C, Y and W135. There is no vaccine for strain B. Chan was affected by a less common strain, Y.

At this time, Fyfe says the province will consider if there is any increased risk to the general population, but suggests that only those in the high-risk groups should take precautions.

“As always, the best defense we really have is avoiding sharing things that come in contact with our nose and throat secretions, staying home when we are sick and washing our hands,” Fyfe says.

Those close to Chan who wish to seek counselling are encouraged to contact UVic’s Counselling Services at 250-721-8341. For more information on meningococcal or vaccines, visit health.uvic.ca/index.html. M