Provincial meningitis immunization program coming

The province is planning to immunize up to 40,000 Gr. 9 students across Alberta beginning this week, although dates for Red Deer haven’t been set yet.

The vaccine will protect teenagers against four different strains of invasive meningococcal disease (IMD) and become part of the annual immunization program for adolescents in the province.

Cost of the program is $2 million.

The exact timing of the immunization program in Red Deer isn’t known yet, said Micky Elabdi with Alberta Health and Wellness. “Dates have yet to be set, but notice of the immunization will be sent out through the schools so parents get advance notice.”

The risk of meningococcal disease increases during adolescence due to sharing food, drinks, lipstick, lip balm, drinking straws, cigarettes and water bottles. The bacterium causing the condition is present in the nose and throat and can be spread through saliva.

The bacterium actually causes two diseases. Meningococcal meningitis is an inflection of the covering of the brain and spinal cord and meningococcemia is a more serious inflection of the blood.

There were 280 cases of IMD in Alberta between 2000 and 2010 with 26 deaths related to the disease or complications from it. However, the number of deaths varies from year to year.

Illness can occur between two and 10 days after contact with the bacteria. Symptoms are similar to influenza and can include fever, headache, nausea, vomiting and a general unwell feeling.

However, those symptoms can quickly progress to a bad headache, stiff neck and a bruise-like skin rash. The rash is the most noticeable symptom of IMD and anyone with these symptoms should see a doctor right away. The only good news with the disease, however, is that most people who contact the bacteria do not become infected, and most of those that do become infected are not seriously affected.

Ten to 20% of the population is known to carry the bacteria. Rates of IMD are highest with infants; the rates of disease decrease after infancy, but increase again in adolescence and early adulthood.

“Invasive meningococcal disease is a serious illness that can cause severe complications,” said Dr. Andre Corriveau, the province’s chief medical officer of health.

“Each year we see a number of cases of meningitis and many of these cases lead to hospitalization. We believe this immunization program will go a long way to protect adolescents who are at the highest risk of contracting meningitis.”

In Alberta the annual Gr. 9 diphtheria, tetanus and acellular pertussis (whooping cough) immunization program has been successful in reducing rates of infection with more than 90% of students in the province being immunized every year.