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Rise of rare bacterial disease not expected to 'spiral out of control': doctor

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While a rare bacterial infection that can lead to meningitis is on the rise in some provinces across Canada, an infectious diseases specialist says it’s not expected to “spiral out of control.”

Invasive meningococcal disease (IMD) is a bacterial infection that can cause meningitis (severe brain and spinal cord inflammation) and is potentially fatal.

So far, Ontario and Manitoba have seen activity this year, a spokesperson for Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) confirmed, with Toronto Public Health reporting a total of 13 cases so far in 2024. It’s the highest number of recorded infections in the city since 2002.

Early data from the National Microbiology Laboratory suggests, however, the total number of IMD cases nationwide has not increased compared to previous years. From 2010 through 2021, there has been an average of nearly 115 cases per year.

Is there a cause for concern?

"It shouldn’t spiral out of control. We do have a very strong vaccination program here in Canada, and it really does underscore the importance of getting those broader vaccines if you’re going to an area where you’re going to see, meet, or be close to a lot of other individuals," infectious diseases specialist Dr. Dale Kalina told CTV News Channel in an interview Wednesday.

The virus spreads from person to person through droplets in the air – like sneezing and talking closely to others – which is why outbreaks can follow after larger gatherings or in areas such as dorm rooms, Kalina noted. Sepsis and bloodstream infections are seen in more serious cases, resulting in amputations and death. Initial symptoms may include fever, nausea, headache, stiff neck, confusion and light sensitivity.

How can I protect myself?

There a variety of strains of meningococcus, Kalina says, and while vaccinations don’t target all different types of bacteria, there are immunizations available against the vast majority.

Immunizations are often given to children between the ages of 12 months and again in adolescence, with provinces adhering to differing vaccination schedules. They are also administered to those who are immunocompromised.

There is also a post-exposure antibiotic targeted against the bacterial infection from developing, if there has already been exposure to IMD, Kalina noted. The federal government said chemoprophylaxis must be offered to anyone in close contact with a case of IMD, meaning household contacts or children in child care with a case of IMD, for example. This should be provided from seven days before the onset of symptoms to 24 hours after, regardless of vaccination status.

While invasive meningococcal disease most commonly affects children under five, it can also infect unvaccinated teens and young adults. According to PHAC, cases typically occur during the winter and spring months, infecting one out of 100,000 people in Canada.

"Many people won’t (know they’ve contracted IMD, but) the reality is public health officials do reach out to close contacts," Kalina said.

The Public Health Agency of Canada says it’s keeping a close eye on the disease and is working closely with all levels of public health partners to "ensure the health and safety of people" across the country.

"Individuals with symptoms of IMD should seek immediate medical attention," an agency spokesperson said via email.

With files from CTVNews.ca's Daniel Otis, CTV News' Heather Wright, CTV News Toronto and The Canadian Press 

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