Kate Healy of Guelph, Ont. was 16 years old and staying with her grandparents in rural Nova Scotia when she got sick. She had just returned from an adventure summer camp and had no idea that this illness would change the trajectory of her life.
“I woke up feeling terrible,” Kate recalls. “I was very tired, almost lethargic, and my muscles ached but I didn’t think much of it at the time. I thought it was just some minor bug I had picked up at camp. The next day, I was feeling even worse and two purple spots appeared on my knee. Throughout the day I was declining, and that’s when my parents decided that we should go to the hospital because this was definitely not normal.”
Kate was first taken to a small local hospital then rushed by ambulance to a second hospital two hours away before finally being airlifted to the Victoria General Hospital in Halifax, where she spent nearly two weeks in the ICU with meningitis B.
“Everything progressed so quickly,” says Kate’s mother Glenda. “Within a 12-hour span, she went from seeming like she had the flu to almost dying. If we had waited any longer before going to the hospital, Kate would have died.”
With vaccine-preventable diseases, knowledge is safety
With prompt treatment being so essential, the knowledge gap in Canada surrounding meningitis is profoundly worrying. Many Canadian parents are unaware of who is at risk, how meningitis is spread, what the symptoms are, and most importantly, how to prevent it.
“Anyone can get meningitis, but those most at risk are infants, teenagers, young adults and people whose immune system is compromised,” explains Dr. Hana Mijovic, an infectious disease pediatrician at BC Children’s Hospital. “Many people carry the meningococcal bacteria without knowing it and feel perfectly well. However, if the bacteria gets into the bloodstream or into the brain, it can cause very serious disease. It usually starts with mild flu-like symptoms but then progresses quickly. Within a matter of hours, the disease can become so severe that it compromises consciousness, affects breathing and requires immediate hospitalization.”
The majority of meningitis cases are caused by five specific strains of meningococcal bacteria: A, B, C, Y and W135. And while vaccines are available to protect against all five, routine immunization programs and schedules vary from province to province. “Meningococcal vaccines are very safe,” says Dr. Mijovic. “The latest vaccine is the one against meningitis B. It was more difficult to develop and isn’t currently given through routine vaccination programs. And, while meningitis C used to be more common, we have an effective meningitis C vaccine that’s given in infancy, so meningitis B is now the bigger risk.”
Surviving meningitis doesn’t always mean leaving it behind
Fortunately, parents today don’t need to rely on luck when it comes to protecting their children from meningitis. When Kate got sick eight years ago, no vaccine for meningococcal B was available. Without the vaccine, the risks are severe. “When a patient with meningitis comes through the doors, there are no guarantees,” says Dr. Mijovic. “People die of meningitis, and those who survive can experience permanent brain damage and hearing loss. Blood stream infections can lead to limb damage that sometimes requires amputation.”
Kate was fortunate to make a strong recovery, but the ordeal stays with her. “It took a lot of time to get back to something like normal,” she says. “It wasn’t a simple bounce-back. It was a lot of rehab, resting, and even some surgery. I was left with quite a few scars on my legs. The whole experience was a huge part of my life and it continues to affect who I am. I wouldn’t want it to happen to anyone else if it can be avoided.”
Today Kate is 24 years old, working at a medical clinic, and hoping to pursue a full-time career in the public health sector. For Glenda, seeing her daughter’s success is a blessing, because she’s keenly aware of how differently things could have gone. “It was a happy ending for us, but only because we were very lucky,” she says.
Let the pandemic remind us: our health is in our hands
Overall immunization rates were already below targets in Canada even before COVID-19 made people reluctant to visit clinics. “With the current pandemic, we’re definitely seeing some people postponing medical appointments and missing routine vaccinations, which are particularly important for young infants,” says Dr. Mijovic. “As a result, we’re concerned that we’ll see a resurgence of diseases that are vaccine-preventable. The pandemic and the search for a COVID-19 vaccine have really highlighted the importance and value of the vaccines that are already available. And remember, you get vaccinated not only to protect yourself but also to protect others who may be more vulnerable.”
It’s a message that Kate echoes passionately. From her work at the clinic and her personal experience, she knows not only the importance of immunization but also the robust preventative measures being taken to ensure that people can safely receive health care even in the midst of this global pandemic. “It’s important to remind people that COVID-19 isn’t the only life-threatening disease out there,” she says. “Getting your vaccines in a timely matter is still really important. With everything that’s happening in the world right now, getting vaccinated is the surest thing you can do to protect yourself and others.”
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