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A portrait of Kai Matthews, who died suddenly from meningitis B while attending Acadia University in 2021. Kai’s father, Norrie Matthews, maintains there is a 'huge' awareness gap about the vaccine to prevent the fatal disease and has led a fundraising campaign to pay for every student at Acadia to get the vaccine.DARREN CALABRESE/The Globe and Mail

Health officials in Nova Scotia are launching a campaign to educate postsecondary students about a rare but serious meningococcal B strain that has killed at least two university students, and is suspected in the death of one more, in less than two years.

“It’s a very focused, targeted vaccination program that we need to have,” Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer Robert Strang recently told a standing committee on health funding in Halifax. “We are working with universities to raise awareness.”

Nova Scotia has come under fire for its lack of education and awareness about the disease, which some parents say could have prevented the deaths of their children.

Kai Matthews, a 19-year-old Acadia University student, died of the disease in June, 2021 – six years after an outbreak at the school left one young woman dead.

Norrie Matthews, who has led an information campaign and started a foundation after his son Kai’s death to pay for Acadia students who want the Health Canada-approved vaccine, said the gap in awareness is unconscionable.

“It’s impossible to lose a child in the way that we lost Kai,” he said. “It’s even more incomprehensible to have it be a preventable disease that he died from, that we could’ve vaccinated him for if we knew about it.”

In November, 2022, a student at Saint Mary’s University died of a suspected case of meningococcal B.

An outbreak at Dalhousie University in December led to the death of Maria Gaynor, 18, a first-year student living in residence.

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Maria Gaynor, 18, from Kemptville, Ont. was living in residence at Dalhousie University in Halifax and died of meningitis B on Dec. 13, 2022.Handout

Ms. Gaynor’s father, Mike Gaynor of Kemptville, Ont., said his family is grief-stricken and angry about the “horrendous lack of communication,” about meningococcal B, which is not covered by any provincial vaccination program for healthy youth.

Ms. Gaynor’s symptoms started with a headache and vomiting. Not knowing anything about meningococcal B, or that there was a suspected death four blocks away the month before, she thought she had the flu or COVID-19. Two days later, she was found dead in her dorm room.

Ms. Gaynor, a kinesiology student, was a skateboarder and an avid rock climber who loved her new life near the ocean in Halifax.

“She’s supposed to be here with us right now,” said Mr. Gaynor, who spent last weekend rock climbing with his three other children in Ontario. “And that’s pretty hard. It’s pretty hard.”

Health Canada approved a vaccine for meningococcal B in 2013, but the National Advisory Committee on Immunization, an external body that provides independent advice to government on the use of vaccines, doesn’t recommend it for healthy, young people. NACI last reviewed Bexsero, a vaccine for meningococcal B, in 2014 and found limited information on its impact on carriage or herd immunity.

However, Australia and New Zealand have recently changed their vaccination policies and begun recommending the vaccine to teenagers and young adults. In the United States, 40 universities require the meningococcal B vaccine and many others recommend it, according to the Meningitis B Action Project.

Meningococcal disease is rare, but most common in infants and children under 5, with a second peak among 15- to 19-year-olds and young adults aged 20 to 24.

Young adults living in military barracks or close living quarters such as dormitories are at increased risk of exposure to the rare disease, said Shelley Deeks, Nova Scotia’s deputy chief medical officer of health and also the chair of NACI.

The bacteria that cause meningitis can be spread through saliva, from the nose and mouth, through sharing drinks, eating utensils and vapes or kissing.

Mr. Matthews has called for NACI to expand its definition of people potentially at increased risk of invasive meningococcal disease to include university students. Currently, the committee says only military personnel may be at increased risk.

A statement from Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada says NACI provides recommendations based on available studies, and provinces and territories make their own decisions based on their epidemiological situation and vaccine availability. “NACI is constantly reviewing all of the available data and will update its guidance in light of the evolving evidence and the latest science in the Canadian public health context,” a spokesperson wrote in a statement to The Globe and Mail.

Nova Scotia is looking at recommending the vaccine to a narrow group, such as first-year university students moving into residence, Dr. Strang said. He said the province also wants to launch an information campaign to ensure university students are aware of the risks of meningococcal B and look at ways to address financial barriers to help cover the $300 vaccine.

Some Nova Scotia universities recently amended their student health plans to cover the cost of the vaccine. Acadia University, Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia Community College, St. Francis Xavier University and Saint Mary’s University include the meningococcal B vaccine in the student health plan – a move that Mr. Matthews said he hopes other postsecondary schools across Canada will follow.

Dr. Strang said he expects Nova Scotia’s new meningococcal B campaign to expand across universities in the Atlantic provinces, although only PEI said it is also working on it.

Halifax Atlantic MLA Brendan Macguire said the meningococcal B campaign in Nova Scotia, which has the highest number of universities per capita in Canada, is “long overdue.” He said the province should start making information about meningococcal B available to all high-school students when they graduate.

“We know that they’re at a slightly higher risk of contracting meningitis B and for severe impact,” he said.

Invasive meningococcal disease is a serious bacterial infection that can invade the body, causing meningitis or septicemia and, in severe cases, death, according to public health. In Canada, infection often happens during winter and spring months. Most cases occur as a single “sporadic” case and the likelihood of anyone developing the disease is very low, said Nova Scotia public health.

In a statement to The Globe, the Nova Scotia Health Authority said public health continues to watch for any circumstances that may indicate additional cases of meningococcal B at Dalhousie and is still providing vaccinations to eligible students and staff.