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Rare bacterial infection outbreak impacting vulnerable populations on Vancouver Island

An outbreak of a rare bacterial infection is affecting people on Vancouver Island living with homelessness and those who use drugs, according to Island Health. (Kathyrn Marlow/CBC - image credit)
An outbreak of a rare bacterial infection is affecting people on Vancouver Island living with homelessness and those who use drugs, according to Island Health. (Kathyrn Marlow/CBC - image credit)

A rare, severe bacterial infection is spreading through unhoused populations and people who use drugs on Vancouver Island, prompting the local health authority to declare an outbreak.

Health officials say there's been a sharp increase in Haemophilus Influenza Type B — also known as Hib — in Victoria, Nanaimo and Parksville in the last two months.

One person has died from the infection, Island Health says, and others have required hospitalization.

"We've actually had very, very few cases of Hib in the last decade because we have a very successful universal childhood vaccination program for this," Island Health medical health officer Dr. Dee Hoyano told All Points West guest host Rohit Joseph.

In 1986, B.C. brought in the Hib vaccine, and it has been included in the childhood immunization program ever since.

Typically, she said, the region sees one case a year. Since December 2021, there have been eight, six of which have been identified in the past two months.

Contact tracing has shown that those affected by the apparent outbreak include people who are unhoused and those who use drugs.

"Some folks in this group will not have had vaccine or are just a more vulnerable risk because of their underlying health conditions and living conditions," Hoyano said.

Hoyano says there is no risk to the general public at this time.

According to the BCCDC, Hib is a "severe" condition that typically affects children under five. On Vancouver Island, people in their mid-20s to people in their mid-70s have been infected, according to the health authority.

The infection usually starts with a fever, vomiting, fatigue, confusion, headache and stiff neck. It can cause meningitis and septicemia. It is treated with antibiotics.

"It's always more difficult for someone who is unhoused to get medical treatment," Grant McKenzie, the director of communications for Our Place Society, told CHEK News.

"When they're on the street, their survival is about where their next meal is coming from, where they're gonna get a hot shower," McKenzie said. "Hib doesn't really play a big part in their decision-making."