N.B. universities monitor suspected fatal case of meningitis in N.S. closely

A student at Saint Mary's University died over the weekend from a suspected case of meningitis. (Robert Short/CBC - image credit)
A student at Saint Mary's University died over the weekend from a suspected case of meningitis. (Robert Short/CBC - image credit)

New Brunswick universities are unaware of any local exposures to a university student in Nova Scotia who died of a suspected case of meningococcal meningitis.

But they're keeping a close eye on the situation, they said.

Nova Scotia Public Health announced Wednesday it's investigating after the student, who attended Saint Mary's University, died in hospital last weekend.

Officials are trying to confirm whether the student had meningitis, and if so, which type.

Bacteria that cause meningococcal disease are spread through direct contact with secretions from the nose and mouth through activities such as kissing,  sneezing or coughing, or sharing food, drink, utensils, cigarettes, smoking devices, lipstick or toothbrushes, according to the Department of Health's website.

Bacterial meningitis is not contracted through casual contact, such as being in the same room as an infected person, it says.

CBC asked the New Brunswick Department of Health whether it had been contacted by Nova Scotia Public Health, whether it's aware of any contacts, or suspected cases, but spokesperson Sean Hatchard did not answer any of these questions.

"As of today, no cases of meningococcal disease have been reported in the province in 2022. If this changes, we will, of course, communicate it to the people of New Brunswick," he said in an emailed statement.

Meningococcal disease is a reportable disease in New Brunswick.

In Nova Scotia, close contacts of the student have been notified and are taking antibiotics as a precaution, Dr. Jesse Kancir, the province's regional medical officer of health for the eastern zone, has said

We encourage all students and community members to remain vigilant in monitoring their health at all times. - Laura Dillman, Mount Allison University

Mount Allison University in Sackville has not been contacted by New Brunswick Public Health, as of Thursday afternoon, said spokesperson Laura Dillman.

"But we encourage all students and community members to remain vigilant in monitoring their health at all times," she said in an emailed statement.

"We will continue to proactively monitor news and updates concerning the case in Nova Scotia," and follow any direction from Public Health, Dillman said.

"Our thoughts are with the friends and family of the student and the entire Saint Mary's community," she said.

The University of New Brunswick has not been advised by Public Health of any potential exposures, and is not aware of any cases or suspected cases, said spokesperson Heather Campbell.

"However, as an institution, we closely monitor any potential health risks. As is our practice with all communicable diseases, we work closely with Public Health and take our direction from them," she said in an emailed statement.

"Our thoughts are with Saint Mary's University as they deal with the loss of a member of its community."

At St. Thomas University in Fredericton, officials are watching the Nova Scotia situation closely "to see what more may develop and if steps here are required," said spokesperson Jeffrey Carleton.

"Just as with COVID, we co-ordinate with Public Health and follow their lead in communications and responses," he said.

The University of Moncton has no cases on its campuses and no contacts that its aware of, said spokesperson Josée Basque.

Infants, teens most likely to get meningitis

Many healthy people — an estimated 10 to 20 per cent of the population — carry the bacteria that cause meningococcal disease in their throat or nose with no symptoms.

In rare cases, however, it can overcome the body's natural defences and cause meningitis, which is an infection of the lining of the brain and spinal cord, or septicemia, an infection of the blood and organs. These can result in permanent brain damage, organ failure and even death, according to the Department of Health's website.

The disease can occur at any age, but those at highest risk include infants under one year of age and teenagers aged 15 to 19, it says.

2 cases last year

New Brunswick has averaged two cases of meningococcal disease per year over the past five years, the department spokesperson said.

The two most recent cases came in 2021, said Hatchard.

He did not provide any information about the cases, such as whether they were fatal, where they were located, or the ages of those involved.

"Public Health in New Brunswick works hard to prevent meningococcal disease cases by promoting immunization and through other means, such as the preventive treatment of contacts," he said.

There is no vaccine that protects against all causes of meningococcal meningitis, Hatchard noted, but the New Brunswick Immunization Program includes publicly-funded vaccines that provide protection against several types of meningococcal disease.

Falling behind on vaccines

The province offers a meningococcal vaccine to New Brunswickers aged 12 months (meningococcal conjugate Type C, or Men-C-C) and to Grade 9 students (meningococcal conjugate quadrivalent, or Men-C-ACYW-135), as part of the routine childhood immunization schedule.

In June, Dr. Jennifer Russell, the chief medical officer of health, told CBC that New Brunswickers have fallen behind on their "regular" vaccinations during the pandemic, particularly children.

It's "concerning," she said. Immunization is "a key public health measure to protect children from diseases."

Justin Tang/The Canadian Press
Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Annual statistics on school immunizations show the decline actually started prior to the pandemic.

The percentage of students who met school entry immunization requirements on the five mandatory vaccines — Men-C-C (meningococcal conjugate Type C), MMR (measles, mumps, rubella), varicella (chicken pox), DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis, also known as whooping cough), and IPV (polio) — dropped to 72.8 per cent in 2019-20, from 76.8 per cent in 2018-19.

The 2019-20 statistics are the most recent available online. CBC requested the province's updated meningococcal vaccination rates, but did not receive a response.

Symptoms of meningitis occur two to 10 days after exposure and can include high fever, headache, stiff neck, nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light, confusion, drowsiness, a small purplish rash, and irritability or, in young children, excessive crying.

Severe cases can result in coma and, if untreated, shock and death.

Invasive meningococcal disease kills one in 10 people who become infected, according to the Department of Health.

Up to one-third of survivors have permanent complications, such as brain damage, amputation of one or more limbs, deafness and seizures.