British Columbia

Father calls for prompt notification of school infections after son diagnosed with flesh-eating disease

The father of a Richmond, B.C., boy battling flesh-eating disease wants a review of parental notification procedures when there's been an infection at their child's school.

Vancouver Coastal Health says there are no documented cases of the disease being spread in the classroom

John Chen, 11, lies bandaged in B.C. Children's Hospital following numerous surgeries. John contracted flesh-eating disease several months ago. (Sam Chen)

The father of a boy battling flesh-eating disease wants a review of parental notification procedures when there's been an infection at their child's school.

Sam Chen says his 11-year-old son, John, was diagnosed with invasive Group A streptococcus on Sunday, March 26.

Chen says he notified the school the next day and, later that afternoon, Vancouver Coastal Health sent a letter to parents telling them another student had also been infected. 

The letter warns parents to watch for symptoms of the infection — fever, sore throat and feeling unwell — and asks them to take their child to a doctor immediately if any of the symptoms develop.

Chen says they should have been notified about the first infection.

"If we had [gotten] the letter [sooner] everything would be different. Because now, nothing can change my son's situation," Chen said. 

Symptoms exhibited days earlier

John's symptoms had developed a few days prior to his diagnosis. A first visit to a doctor had him sent home with Advil.

It wasn't until his parents took him to B.C. Children's Hospital that he was diagnosed, prompting 18 surgeries to save his life and limbs. He has remained in the hospital ever since.

Dr. Althea Hayden, a medical health officer with the regional health authority, says the disease is extremely rare and those at most risk of transmission are close family members — but even that risk is very low.

Hayden said there haven't been any documented cases of the infection being transmitted in a classroom setting. 

"We follow evidence-based guidelines to inform patients and families of cases of infectious disease, including Group A strep," Hayden said. 

"We had no reason to believe that classmates would have been at elevated risk."

Sam Chen says his son loves sports, especially golf, and is also a talented piano player. (Sam Chen)

'We can do nothing but pray'

Vancouver Coastal Health notified the entire classroom, she said, "because we wanted to take extra measures in what was a very unusual situation."

The health authority emphasized that there is no confirmation Chen's son contracted the disease in the classroom. 

The case will be written up to add to the medical literature, Hayden added, but that won't automatically change when, or if, parents are notified. 

"Right now, I don't think we have the evidence to say that expanding notification would help people," she said. 

Chen says the latest news on his son's condition is that the infection may have spread to his left hip.

"As parents, we can do nothing but pray," he said. 

Despite the constant medical care, he says John is in good spirits and is hoping to return to school in the fall — with the help of a wheelchair.