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Meningitis scare attracts hundreds

Vaccine clinic triggered by young man's death

Public health officials are confident they’ve managed to control the spread of a deadly infectious disease after holding a free vaccination clinic in the gay village.

Officials were worried that a Toronto man who died of meningitis C in November may have spread the disease at a Church St bar. Doctors say that carriers — who can contract and then unknowingly communicate the disease without developing symptoms themselves — might have then spread the disease further.

The 23-year-old man, who died Nov 26 and whose name has not been released, is known to have been at Crews And Tango on the weekend of Nov 17 and 18. Public health officials estimate that as many as 500 other patrons were present those days, and may have come into contact with the disease from the man through kissing, shared drinks or cigarettes, or other exchanges of saliva.

Toronto Public Health held a clinic at the 519 Community Centre on Dec 1, and used the media to ask all those who were at Crews And Tango the weekend in question to get a free immunization. Officials say 497 people showed up.

Vinita Duvey of Toronto Public Health says doctors had already immunized the deceased’s family and friends. She says that considering the turnout at the clinic, health officials are confident things are under control.

“I think the important thing is this was a single case, it wasn’t an outbreak,” says Duvey. “Now we can feel confident that anyone who might have been exposed to the disease will be protected.”

Duvey says the incubation period for the disease is between two and 10 days, with an average of three or four days. That means that anyone who contracted the disease at Crews would have shown symptoms before the clinic. But Duvey says the immunizations were focussed on carriers. Ten percent of the population can become carriers if exposed to the disease.

“The reason for doing the clinic is to prevent the spread of the disease,” says Duvey. “The vaccine prevents the carrier from spreading the disease.”

Meningitis C is a particularly virulent, but rare, form of the disease, which is an inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Ten to 15 percent of those who contract meningitis C die, and another 20 percent develop lasting problems, including loss of hearing or mental retardation.

Symptoms can include a high fever, sudden severe headaches, nausea, stiff neck, chills and sensitivity to light. The symptoms may progress to a purplish rash and drowsiness. Anyone showing these symptoms is advised to go to an emergency room immediately.

Duvey says there were no reported cases of meningitis C in Toronto last year, but this case was the fourth reported this year. The city averages about 15 reported cases of all types of meningitis each year.

She says that public health doctors have not identified how the deceased contracted the disease, but suspect he may have been exposed to it by a carrier.