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Brave Student’s Warning: The Vaccine-Preventable Disease You Need To Know About

Meningitis B could have been fatal for this 19-year-old university student. Here’s what she wants you to know.
Brave Student’s Warning: The Vaccine-Preventable Disease You Need To Know About
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A headache, nausea, a stiff neck—when Queen’s University student Megan Plamondon developed these symptoms last fall, she initially wasn’t too concerned.

“I’m a member of the triathlon team, and every Sunday, we go for long runs,” says the 19-year-old. “I felt a little weaker than usual during my run, but that could be a lot of things. When I got home, it seemed like I was leaning more toward sick territory. I just spent the whole day in bed. I had an awful headache, and I was very nauseous—I couldn’t keep anything down. I also had a very stiff neck, but I thought that was just from sleeping funny.”

By Monday night, Plamondon felt much worse. She went to the hospital to get checked out but left without being seen because there was a long wait to see a doctor, and the bright lights were making her headache worse. Leaving seemed like an OK thing to do because she thought she just had a regular bug.

Brave Student’s Warning: The Vaccine-Preventable Disease You Need To Know AboutMegan Plamondon

But Plamondon continued to get worse, and a voice at the back of her head—and worried family members back home, including her ER doctor aunt and uncle—nagged at her that it might be something more serious.

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“My mom had sent me an article about a kid at Dalhousie who died from meningitis and told me to look out for symptoms. I remember at the time being like, ‘Sure, whatever, one in a million,’” she recalls. “Even when my mom first suggested that my symptoms might be meningitis, I thought, ‘I’m definitely fine.’”

Plamondon wasn’t fine, though. When she woke up in severe pain on Tuesday, she went to another hospital, where doctors confirmed she had been infected with meningitis B, a bacterial strain that causes invasive meningococcal disease. She spent 10 days in hospital being treated with IV antibiotics.

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As many as 10 percent of all people who become infected with meningitis die, according to Meningitis Foundation Canada, and 90 percent of cases are fatal if not treated.

“I knew it wasn’t good,” Plamondon says, “but I didn’t know it was life-threatening.”

“Within 24 Hours, It Can Lead To Death”

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While meningococcal meningitis is rare—Health Canada reports about 200 cases a year—it progresses fast. That it can be mistaken for so many everyday illnesses is what makes it so dangerous, says Dr. Courtney Bell, a family physician in Guelph, Ontario.

“It starts off looking like any other common infection, such as a virus,” says Bell. “But the scary part is there’s this rapid progression where, within 24 hours of the onset of symptoms, it can lead to death.”

Meningitis spreads through saliva and throat secretions, like droplets from coughs and sneezes. “In teens, there are a lot of lifestyle factors like sharing lip gloss or sharing cups or making out with people,” says Bell. Congregate settings—dorms, overnight camp—can also increase exposure risk, she says.

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Brave Student’s Warning: The Vaccine-Preventable Disease You Need To Know AboutDr. Courtney Bell

And even when meningitis isn’t deadly, it can be disabling. “One in three survivors is left with a permanent disability—things like deafness, limb amputation, learning disabilities, mental health issues, seizure disorders,” Bell says.

What she wants parents to know is not only that they should be aware of what meningitis B looks like—but also that there are vaccines that can prevent infections. But not enough people know they aren’t protected.

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Not On Routine Vaccination Schedules

There are five strains of meningitis that can cause illness. The Canadian Immunization Guide recommends that babies receive a meningitis C vaccine between the ages of 12 and 23 months and that the Men-C-ACYW vaccine be administered routinely after age 12. But available vaccines for meningitis B are not part of routine public schedules.

“The B strain specifically is the most common strain within Canada,” says Bell. “If you’re going to get invasive meningococcal disease, it’s most likely going to be that strain. But for reasons that are unclear to me, our government doesn’t put it in its routine vaccine schedule.”

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As a result, Bell says, many parents wrongly assume their kids are protected. “Who should get vaccinated? I would argue all infants. I talk to every parent of every baby in my practice about this B strain. And then when kids are a little older, like 15, I ask if they’re planning to go to university or college or if they play competitive sports and share hotel rooms,” she says.

Six months after her infection, Plamondon says she’s finally feeling mostly back to normal. But she knows how lucky she is and wants Canadians to have the information they need to avoid an infection that can so quickly become tragic.

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“I don’t want anyone to have to go through what I went through,” she says. “Meningitis B is preventable—I want people to know to get vaccinated.”

Talk to your doctor or health care professional to learn more about meningitis B and visit www.meningitisb.ca

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