Public Health is investigating a fatal case of suspected meningococcal meningitis in Nova Scotia's western zone after the death of a university student.
The province's health authority said in a news release Wednesday the person attended Saint Mary's University and died in hospital over the weekend.
A medical investigation is underway to confirm whether the person had meningitis, and if so, which type.
But Dr. Jesse Kancir, the eastern zone's regional medical officer of health, said officials may never get a clear answer.
"It's incredibly tragic," said Kancir, who noted cases like this are extremely rare.
"I think one of the sad things with these diseases, is that when they occur, they move quick, they tend to hit people who are quite healthy, and they are shocking. It doesn't happen a lot. It gets a lot of attention."
Bacteria that cause meningococcal disease are spread through secretions from the nose and mouth through activities like kissing or sharing food, drink, toothbrushes, utensils or smoking devices.
Close contacts already notified
Kancir would not reveal any details about the student, but said all of their close contacts have been notified.
Those contacts are now on antibiotics as a precaution. If a type of meningitis is confirmed, they will also receive the vaccine for that strain.
"We feel like we've done a thorough job with the contact investigation, and so the risk to Nova Scotians and to anybody who hasn't been contacted, we think is not any higher than it would routinely be," he said. "This is not a risk to the public right now."
Kancir urged people not to jump to conclusions about the student's cause of death.
Last year, Kai Matthews, a student at Acadia University, died of meningococcal type B. His family has since started a campaign to urge university students to get vaccinated.
"We don't know that this is meningococcal B," said Kancir. "I know there's a lot of attention in the province around this. To focus on that is uncertain."
No other cases identified
Saint Mary's University declined to do an interview, but in an email to the community, it said Public Health's investigation does not involve any of the university's residences.
"I want to extend my deepest sympathy to the family and friends of this student and the entirety of the Saint Mary's University community impacted by this tragedy," said Tom Brophy, associate vice-president of student affairs and services, in the email.
Brophy said no further identifying details would be released.
There are no vaccines that protect against all causes of meningococcal meningitis, but Nova Scotia's regular vaccine program offers some meningitis vaccines. Vaccines for meningitis B are not part of the publicly funded vaccine program, but are made available to close contacts or people at higher risk of meningococcal disease.
Symptoms include fever, stiff neck, rash, sensitivity to light and changes in alertness.
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