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Health authorities have declared an outbreak of a rare bacterial illness impacting the unhoused community.

The  disease known as Haemophilius influenza type B (Hib) has claimed one life to date, and cases have been detected in Victoria, Nanaimo and Parksville. 

Island Health noted an increase in cases with seven confirmed cases since late 2021, when the norm for Hib cases on the island is zero to one case per year. 

The decrease in Hib cases has been credited to childhood vaccination programs.

“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 a media release.

According to Island Health, those who contract Hib will have a clinical presentation of meningitis, pneumonia and bacteremia. 

Island Health says that it affects those in their 20s to 70s, with an average age of 47-years-old. 

Symptoms include fever, headache, lethargy, anorexia, nausea, vomiting, and irritability and the onset of these symptoms are rapid in most cases. 

So far, one person has died of Hib as the strain of influenza has a fatality rate of 5%. Deafness is common in 15-20% of meningitis presentation survivors. 

“Individuals may transfer the organism to close contacts though droplets spread by coughing and sneezing,” said Island Health. 

“Sharing of droplet or saliva containing items including food, drink and equipment for substance use is also a risk for transmission.” 

Island Health says that Hib can be carried asymptomatically. 

Since the introduction of the vaccine in 1986 in BC, there has been decreased circulation of Hib, however, natural immunity in the adult population is likely slightly decreased among those who did not receive the vaccine.

“The vaccine is very effective in preventing disease as well as reducing community transmission,” said Island Health.  

For those who have tested positive and reported, Island Health Communicable Disease will initiate case and contact tracing. Immunization and immunity boosting drugs will be offered to household contacts and partner contacts.  

“At this time the risk to the general public is low, especially as Hib is included in routine childhood vaccinations,” said Island Health. 

“An outbreak of a vaccine-preventable disease is a reminder of the importance of ensuring patients are up-to-date with routine vaccinations, and we encourage reviewing vaccination history of pediatric patients and referring those requiring HiB or other routine vaccines to their local public health unit or providing directly.

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