Interior Health has declared an outbreak of meningococcal disease in the Okanagan.
The health authority made the decision after having seen an increasing number of cases of the disease in the 15-to-19-year-old age group in the last six months, including the very recent case of a Grade 11 student in Vernon, who remains in hospital in Vancouver in a medically induced coma.
Interior Health is offering immunization clinics throughout the Okanagan for kids in Grades 9-12 and anyone aged 15-19 who does not attend school.
“The risk to the general population is low,” said Dr. Karin Goodison, medical health officer, on Thursday. “However, with the increase in the number of cases and the fact that this disease can be prevented through immunization, we felt it important to raise the public’s awareness about this disease, and roll out a campaign to immunize those at the highest risk.
“We are encouraging all people in this age group who live in the Okanagan to get immunized.”
Five cases have been reported in the last six months: the one in Vernon, one in the Central Okanagan and three in the South Okanagan.
Meningococcal disease is a bacterial infection that occurs rarely in Canada and that is spread by coughing, sneezing, or close face-to-face contact. It can also spread through saliva.
“The best way to prevent meningococcal disease is to not, what I call, ‘swap spit,’” said Goodison. “Don’t share glasses, don’t share cigarettes, don’t share your saliva with other people. What happens is the bacteria is transmitted from the nose and mouth of the one carrying the bacteria to other people’s nose and mouth when they have full contact.”
Immunizations started Thursday at a school in Vernon, and clinics will continue to roll out at Okanagan schools next week to ensure immunization before winter holidays.
Interior Health will also be offering immunization at public health centres for people who are not attending school or who have missed their school immunization clinic.
The Meningococcal Quadrivalent vaccine has been part of the routine immunization schedule for B.C. students in Grade 9 since 2016.
This year, Interior Health has identified 11 cases of meningococcal disease, with most of them in the Okanagan.
Goodison said one person in the 15-to-19 age group in the Okanagan tested positive for meningitis and died, but the cause of the person’s death was unclear.
The health authority would not release details on the person who died, or give an update on the high school student, citing privacy rules.
Typically, the health authority will see less than five cases per year.