Toronto doctors urge vaccination as ‘deadly’ disease spreads

The city’s public health department and doctors are urging people to get vaccinated against a potentially fatal bacterial disease as cases rise.

Toronto Public Health (TPH) has reported 14 confirmed cases of invasive meningococcal disease (IMD) so far this year, more than double the previous average of six cases per year.

“This is a substantial increase and we’re not even halfway through the year,” Dr. Vinita Dubey, Toronto’s chief medical officer, said in an interview.

She also noted that a variant of the disease called W-135, which is not usually found in Canada, has already proven deadly.

“We’ve had one child and one adult that have passed away. These are very tragic deaths,” Dubey said.

IMD is a rare but life-threatening bacterial infection that can infect the brain and spinal cord, causing meningitis, and the bloodstream, causing sepsis. Teenagers and infants are most likely to become infected, and up to 10 percent of all patients with IMD die, according to Health Canada.

The spread of IMD is of particular concern to health officials now, as summer travel picks up and large, crowded events get underway. Doctors also note that many children are still behind on vaccinations they missed while learning remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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W-135 strain causes hospital admissions

Dubey said all five IMD strains – A, B, C, Y and W-135 – tend to spread in Canada, but the W-135 variant in particular has affected anyone who has recently had it in Toronto. admitted to hospital.

“The strain is called a hypervirulent strain, which means it can make you very sick,” she said. “It comes on quickly and it develops quickly.”

According to TPH, the W-135 strain normally accounts for 20 per cent of all cases in Toronto, but this year that has risen to half.

Dr. Allison McGeer, an infectious disease specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, said the W-135 variant is common in Saudi Arabia, raising concerns among healthcare providers before and after the Hajj each year.

Muslim worshipers kneel around the Kaaba, a square, sacred structure.
Muslims perform the Eid al-Adha morning prayers in the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, on the first day of the holiday marking the end of Hajj, on June 16, 2024. The W-135 variant of IMD is common in Saudi Arabia and can be spread during crowded events such as the annual Hajj, an infectious disease doctor said. (AFP/Getty Images)

“The Hajj has brought so many people together and meningococcal vaccines have been relatively expensive, and so they are out of reach for many countries around the world,” McGeer said.

TPH advises people returning from Saudi Arabia to watch for IMD symptoms, such as fever and headache, and to avoid sharing food and drinks as a precaution.

According to Dubey, a person can carry the bacteria for weeks or months before it causes serious illness.

Vaccine for B strain not government funded: doctor

Ontario residents aged 18 to 38, including newcomers, who did not receive IWD vaccines while in school are eligible a government-funded meningococcal vaccine which provides protection against most strains of the disease.

Toronto-based family physician Dr. Vivien Brown, who also serves on the board of Immunize Canada, said the vaccine that protects against meningococcal B is not funded by the government.

“It’s not as simple as, ‘Just get your vaccine from the public health department,’” Brown said.

She advises vulnerable age groups, especially teenagers who are going to university this year, to talk to their doctor about whether they need a B vaccination.

“It’s those adolescents who leave high school and go to college where, unfortunately, we see this deadly disease,” she said.

A woman in a mask prepares a syringe
Ontario residents aged 18 to 38 are eligible to receive a publicly funded meningococcal vaccine that protects against most strains of the disease. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Newcomers were encouraged to be shot

The city’s public health department is also encouraging new arrivals to get vaccinated as IMD shots are not common in many of their home states.

“In 2022, we had an outbreak of meningococcal C strain in our city that mainly affected young adults, and most of them were newcomers,” Dubey said.

Those who don’t know if they’ve received one of the IMD vaccines should get vaccinated to be safe, Brown said.

“It’s safer to take a second chance than to miss the opportunity altogether,” Brown said.

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Dick Zoutman said some newcomers may not know they can get a vaccine or may be skeptical about getting one due to mistrust or misinformation.

“The crucial element here is to provide as much information as possible [as possible] that has been developed appropriately for the public,” says Zoutman.

He said it is important that information campaigns are conducted in people’s mother tongue and promote education.

“A lot of people have a very big misunderstanding about what vaccines can do and what they can’t do and what the risks are,” he said.

‘Overall, vaccines have saved a huge number of lives.

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