Island Health quietly declares rare bacterial outbreak affecting the unhoused

Island Health quietly declares rare bacterial outbreak affecting the unhoused

Island Health has quietly announced an outbreak of a rare bacterial disease affecting the unhoused population, which has caused one person to die.

In a newsletter on the health authority’s website dated Nov. 29, 2022, the Office of the Chief Medical Health Officer declared an outbreak of Haemophilus Influenzae type B (Hib). Eight cases have been confirmed since late 2021 in Victoria, Nanaimo and Parksville and one person has died, according to Island Health.

“This outbreak is affecting people experiencing homelessness, unstable housing, or supportive housing and those using substances including drugs that are inhaled,” said Island Health in the newsletter.

The people infected ranged from their mid-20s to 70s, and the average age of infection is 47.

According to the BC Centre for Disease Control, Hib used to commonly affect children under the age of five until it was added to B.C.’s rare disease list after mass vaccination programs began.

The organism can spread through saliva, spit, face-to-face contact, coughing and sneezing. Many symptoms include fever, vomiting, lethargy, and nausea. The disease can cause life-threatening infections including meningitis and pneumonia.

“It’s always more difficult for someone who is unhoused to get medical treatment,” said Grant McKenzie, Director of Communications for Our Place Society.

Hib became rare after vaccines for the disease were added to the childhood vaccination program in 1986. Unvaccinated children and adults not caught up on their immunizations are most susceptible to the disease according to BCCDC. McKenzie says getting vaccinations aren’t a primary concern for people surviving on the streets.

“When they’re on the street, their survival is about where their next meal is coming from, where they’re gonna get a hot shower,” McKenzie said. “Hib doesn’t really play a big part in their decision making.”

In email to CHEK News, the BCCDC said that there has been 17 total cases of Hib in the province, with 11 of those cases stemming from unhoused peoples. Two people have died and all but one case were adults.

Island Health says cases are rare, reporting between zero to one case per year and has already rolled out a vaccination clinics in affected communities. With a growing unhoused population in the Victoria area, McKenzie says it will be challenging to stay ahead of the disease.

“We just have to warn people that this is out there, to be a little bit more cautious,” said McKenzie.

Oli HerreraOli Herrera

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