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Vancouver Island homeless population grappling with rare bacterial infection

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Public health officials are taking action to curb the spread of a rare and dangerous bacterial disease that’s taken root among people experiencing homelessness on Vancouver Island.

Haemophilus Influenzae Type B (HIB), which is not related to the influenza virus, has infected at least eight people on the island and led to at least one death.

That’s a cause for concern, said Dr. Reka Gustafesn, chief medical health officer for Island Health, who explained the bacteria can lead to serious illness, including meningitis, among people with certain immune deficiencies.

“We’re seeing an unusual number of serious infections among adults who don’t necessarily have those predisposing conditions,” she said.

“We expect to see one or no such infections in Island Health in a calendar year. We tend to see less than three in the entire province in a calendar year — so eight in less than a calendar year, and more importantly, six in the last few weeks is really a significant change.”

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Initial symptoms of HIB usually include fever, vomiting, fatigue, confusion, headaches or stiff muscles.

The illness is typically spread by coughing or sneezing, or by sharing things like cigarettes, drinks or utensils.

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Doug Hiltz, a director with Wisteria Community Association, said outreach workers are on the streets trying to spread the word among the homeless community.

“It’s definitely on our radar, we’re going out, giving them clothing, keeping them fed, dry socks,” he said. “It’s just one more thing on their plate right now that they have to worry about.”

Routine vaccination for HIB did not begin in B.C. until 1986, meaning some adults may be vulnerable to it, however, Gustafsen stressed there is no risk to the general population at this time.

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Officials are targeting their response to the island’s homeless community where the cluster is centred, she said.

Part of that response includes a vaccine campaign for those at risk.

“We did set up a vaccination clinic with Island Health,” Our Place Society spokesperson Grant McKenzie said.

“A lot of times with vaccinations you have to do (the clinic) several times, just for that word of mouth to spread.”

Along with a vaccination drive among the homeless, Gustafsen said public health officials are providing antibiotics to those who have contracted the illness along with their close contacts, which are effective at treating the infection.