Montreal·CBC Explains

How to tell if you have a meningococcal infection, as explained by a doctor

CBC spoke with infectious diseases specialist Dr. Caroline Quach about how to spot the symptoms and who's at risk for infection.

Doctors and emergency rooms are on alert after death of young Montreal woman

Here are the symptoms to watch for if you think you may have been in close contact with someone carrying meningococcal bacteria. (CBC)

Montreal's public health authority is on guard for more cases of meningococcal infections after an 18-year-old student died over the weekend.

CBC spoke with infectious disease specialist Dr. Caroline Quach about how to spot the symptoms and who's at risk for infection.

How do you get infected?

The disease has five serogroups: A, B, C, Y and W135. The fatal infection was part of serogroup B.

Quach says the infection spreads through close contact with someone with the disease — you can't get infected through air or water.

It spreads through saliva, including "kissing, sharing glasses or coughing on somebody," she said.

"The cells at the back of your throat become eroded and that's how the bacteria actually enters from your throat to your system."

She says that's often how the disease starts, and from there, in some cases, it can evolve rapidly.

Quach says that the disease is most common in college and university students, particularly if they live in dorm rooms, because they are in close contact with others.

How common is the B serogroup?

The B serogroup is not new to Canada but has not been spreading widely either, Quach said.

She says cases in the Montreal area are rare.

"It all depends who that person was in contact with. It's impossible to say exactly where she got it and that's always the difficulty," she said.

Quach stresses that there is no need for people to panic. She says that the disease rates are being monitored constantly.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms include fever, a severe headache and feeling weak.

Once the disease has advanced, red spots can appear on your skin due to bursting blood vessels. They can appear anywhere on your body.

Quach says that those infected will feel sicker than when they have a common cold.

Montreal Public Health has been notifying emergency rooms and physicians to be on the lookout for symptoms of meningococcal infection.

What should you do if you think you're infected?

Quach says it's very important for anyone showing symptoms who was in close contact with a victim to be assessed by a medical professional.

For others, "[When] you know something is out of the ordinary, like not just a cold, where you say you're really tired and you're cold, and it seems to be [worse] than usual then that's when you have to go," she said.

If you're in doubt, you can call Info-Santé and talk to a professional over the phone. They can then advise you whether to go to the emergency room.

If the doctor thinks you may be infected, they can conduct blood and spinal fluid tests to learn more.

Are there preventive measures you can take?

The meningococcal B vaccine Bexsero is a very good option to prevent infection, Quach said.

However, it's not covered by public health insurance because the infection is so rare.

You need two doses of the vaccine to be protected, but Quach says you start getting some protection after the first dose.

"It's a vaccine that we know causes a lot of local reactions, sometimes also a lot of systemic reactions, like fever. So people just need to be aware, depending on the age of the child, " she said.

Quach says that they aren't sure how long the protection lasts after receiving the vaccine. It is believed to last four to five years.

She says people between the ages of two months and early adulthood can receive it.

With files from Franca Mignacca

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