3 carriers identified after confirmed case of diphtheria at Edmonton school

Alberta Health Services is notifying people who may have been exposed to diphtheria at an Edmonton elementary school.

Immunized people who have been exposed can become carriers without symptoms

Complications from diptheria can be deadly. The Centers for Disease Control and Pervention says even with treatment one in 10 diphtheria patients die. (The Canadian Press)

Public health officials investigating a confirmed case of diphtheria at an Edmonton elementary school, have identified three other people as carriers of the bacteria that causes the disease.

AHS officials haven't identified the school but parents of students at Evansdale School got a letter on Thursday and last Friday alerting them to a confirmed case of diphtheria.

In a letter sent to parents Thursday, principal Brenda Schmermund said "a small group" of students and staff were tested for the bacteria.

"I know this has been a stressful time for our school community. We are doing everything we can to keep students and staff safe," Schmermund said in the letter. 

Alberta Health Services said it is monitoring and providing treatment for individuals who may have had close contact with the diphtheria patient and carriers. 

People who have been fully immunized, or immunized for their age, can become carriers when they come into contact with the bacteria that causes diphtheria. They often don't show symptoms.

"For their protection and that of those around them, they receive the same treatment and are subject to the same isolation protocols as someone who is identified as symptomatic," AHS said.

School to get deep clean

Dr. Chris Sikora, medical officer of health with the Edmonton zone, and Darrel Robertson, superintendent of Edmonton Public Schools, spoke to reporters Thursday afternoon.

"We're helping manage these individuals through a combination of swabbing, which is identification of the organism itself, antibiotics to help clear it, and then isolation, so we want people to be away from their usual place of either work or learning,"  Sikora said.

Robertson said Evansdale School remained open through the week. Another deep clean will be conducted at the school Thursday night, he said.

"The risk is extremely low for additional transfer of the disease and so we felt the additional cleaning measures were appropriate rather than closing the school and kids missing valuable learning time at this time of year."

Diphtheria is a bacterial infection causing inflammation in the upper respiratory tract that can lead to heart and neurological problems. It is spread through respiratory secretions and by direct skin contact.

Symptoms include fever, sore throat, loss of appetite and feeling unwell. Severe disease can cause extreme neck swelling. Life threatening complications include upper airway obstruction.

AHS said it was notified of the diphtheria case that same day, and began follow-up protocols, which include treatment and isolating the patient to prevent further spread of illness.

Public health staff also reached out to close contacts for testing and other necessary measures.

In the media statement, AHS thanked Edmonton Public Schools for help and support "during what's been a difficult time for one of its schools, students and families."

AHS staff are working with the school to ensure that all necessary cleaning and disinfection protocols are in place.

The diphtheria vaccine is offered without charge in Alberta through the immunization program.

The latest case is at least the third in Alberta in the past three years. An Evansdale School student was also diagnosed in 2017.

There were 17 cases reported across Canada between 1996 and 2016, an average of less than one case per year.