Skip to main content

'Let's start protecting students': Parent calls on N.S. to cover meningitis B vaccine after university student's death


With exams nearly over and many students heading home for the holidays, the Shireff Hall residence on the Dalhousie University campus was relatively quiet Monday.

The residence is where Nova Scotia Public Health declared an outbreak of meningitis B late Friday, after a student who lived there died of the disease, following the hospitalization of another student resident in the same building.

The news comes a month after a Saint Mary’s University student also died of meningitis, although the strain involved in that case has not been made public by health officials.

While meningitis in general is described by medical experts as a rare disease, family physician Dr. Vivien Brown of the University of Toronto says it “hits like lightning.”

“And although people who are immunosuppressed are more at risk, statistically, meningitis hits healthy, average people the most,” she adds, “and two cases in a university is considered an outbreak. That's a high number.”

Last Thursday, parents in Westville, N.S., were also notified that a student at Walter Duggan Consolidated -- an elementary school -- also received a confirmed diagnosis of “invasive” meningococcal disease. Public Health advised parents to monitor their child for potential symptoms until Dec. 19.

“It's hard to believe, it's heartbreaking, it's surreal to be honest,” says Norrie Matthews, whose 19-year-old son, Kai, an Acadia University student, died last year of meningitis B.

Since then, his family has been spreading awareness about the disease, through a non-profit organization, B for Kai.

“A lot of parents don't know about meningitis B to start with,” says Matthews. “Once you have the awareness, you can act on it. You can't act on what you don't know.”

A Dalhousie University memo obtained by CTV Atlantic indicates at least one early communication to students in residence didn't mention meningitis at first.

“Over the weekend, Public Health notified the university that one case of an infectious disease was identified within our residence community,” says the memo, dated Dec. 12.

“…only those contacted by public health are required to take action,” it continues, adding, “to protect privacy…detailed information….will not be provided, including the medical diagnosis.”

No one from public health was available for an interview, but spokesperson Krista Keough wrote in an email that sharing a specific diagnosis often relies on “definitive results.”

“Public Health follows a standard procedure for case management and investigation which is based on national guidance,” wrote Keough. “We have to balance providing as much information as needed to protect those at risk with protecting privacy and confidentiality.”

The email continues, “Certain steps, like providing early advice and intervention to high risk contacts can be taken based on initial results….Public Health will release information and advice on actions for illness prevention as soon as we can. The timing varies depending on when results are available.”

Last week, regional Medical Officer of Health Dr. Cristin Muecke, told CTV Atlantic the meningococcal B strain connecting the two cases at Shirreff Hall was only lab-identified midday Friday.

Meanwhile, Norrie Matthews wants families to know there is a vaccine to prevent meningitis B, although it is not currently included in Nova Scotia’s school vaccination program.

That’s something the Matthews family would like to change.

“University students, college students are at a higher risk of contracting meningitis based on their behavior and their social activities alone,” he says. “That should be enough to say, let's start protecting students.”

The executive director of Meningitis Canada agrees, and has been pushing the province to publicly fund immunization with the meningitis B vaccine.

“And certainly in Nova Scotia, three deaths in a year-and-a-half from meningitis B,” says Kathryn Blain.

But she also wants people to know the vaccine is available, and is often covered under private health plans. Pharmacists in Nova Scotia have the authority to prescribe the meningitis B vaccine, along with physicians making it available by prescription.

Many of the university health plans in the province, including Dalhousie’s, also cover the shot for student members.

“It is safe and effective for infants, for teens and young adults, and we think it should be available,” says Blain.

Dr. Brown says meningitis B symptoms often mimic cold or flu, but can become life-threatening very quickly, which makes vaccination so important.

“You need circulating antibodies to fight this disease before you get sick, and that's what vaccine is all about,” she says.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Wellness would only say the province currently covers the vaccine “people considered to be at high risk for meningococcal disease, close contacts of individuals with meningococcal disease and in outbreak situation as determined by Public Health.”

N.S. Public Health says no new cases of meningococcal disease have been identified at Dalhousie University, and says its on-campus vaccination clinic for staff and residents at Shirreff Hall had “terrific response.”

The agency says it will work with the university to provide the second required dose to the same population in mid-January. Top Stories

Stay Connected