When varsity athlete Megan Plamondon started feeling sick last November, she thought she’d pushed herself too hard on a two-hour run.

The student at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., started feeling tired toward the end of her Sunday long run with her triathlon teammates, but that wasn’t unusual — it was 17 kilometres, after all. She lay down to rest afterward, like she often would, but then she started feeling nauseated, and her head hurt.

By Sunday night, Plamondon, 19, was still in bed with a cracking headache, stiff neck, and sensitivity to light. By the next morning, after a restless, painful night, she says she knew something was very wrong. 

“I just wanted it to stop. It was the worst pain I’d ever felt in my life,” Plamondon told CBC News. “I couldn’t even keep water down. I would throw up water, throw up Advil, throw up everything.”

After a series of phone calls with her mother, who pushed her to go to the hospital, Plamondon was eventually diagnosed with a rare but life-threatening form of bacterial meningitis, one of three cases that prompted Kingston health officials to warn of an increase in invasive meningococcal disease type B activity in the region.

She was the first case. Now she wants other people to know what she didn’t: there is a vaccine specifically for meningococcal disease type B, but it’s not offered routinely to the general population.

A young woman lies in a hospital bed with her eyes covered
Plamondon was hospitalized for 10 days. (Submitted by Megan Plamondon)

Plamondon says she’s grateful that, as she spent 10 days being treated with IV antibiotics in the hospital, she didn’t really understand how serious meningitis can be. She didn’t yet know that up to 10 per cent of people infected with IMD die, according to Health Canada, and complications include deafness, limb amputations and permanent brain damage.

“I would have been freaking out. I didn’t think there was a remote possibility that I would die.”

‘We almost lost her’

Invasive meningococcal disease (IMD) is a rare but life-threatening bacterial infection that can infect the brain and spinal cord, causing meningitis, and the bloodstream, causing septicemia. There are almost 200 cases in Canada per year on average.

Most IMD cases are caused by five types of bacteria: A, B, C, Y and W-135, though in Canada, group B causes most illness, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. The vaccine for meningococcal B isn’t a routine vaccine like meningococcal C, typically given to babies at age one, or meningococcal ACYW-135, typically administered in Grade 7 in Ontario.

On Feb. 29,  Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox & Addington Public Health (KFL&A) Public Health warned of an increase in invasive meningococcal disease type B activity in the region — three cases in recent months, including one pediatric case, Dr. Piotr Oglaza, medical officer of health at KFL&A Public Health, previously told CBC News.

Lisa Farun’s daughter, Carly, is the second case. Carly, 21, is another student at Queen’s University. 

“We almost lost her,” Lisa Farun, who lives in Toronto, told CBC News. “It could have been different. And that is something that is devastating to me.”

In December, Carly called her mother to say she was feeling unwell. Lisa says it sounded like she had a migraine; she offered to bring her daughter soup, but she said no, it wasn’t that bad. By the next day, though, Carly was having difficulty speaking and was barely aware of what was going on around her.

Then, she fainted twice, Lisa said. Her roommates found her in her room in a confused state and called 911.

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She was diagnosed with meningitis at the hospital, Lisa said, and it progressed quickly. Her daughter also had septicemia and her systems were shutting down. She spent eight days in the hospital, seven of them in the ICU.

“It was an absolute nightmare,” Farun said.

Now that Carly is fully recovered, Farun wants to raise awareness, not only that this is a high-risk age group, but that there’s a vaccine available for this particular strain.

“This is something that is easily preventable.”

In Kingston, they’re recommending the meningococcal B vaccine for people under age 25. The cost for the general population is about $160 per dose, with two doses required. 

Currently, no provinces or territories cover the cost of the meningococcal B vaccine for all children, according to the Canadian Paediatric Society. But it is generally available for people who have certain high-risk medical conditions, and it’s also used for outbreak control. 

In May 2023, Nova Scotia began offering the meningococcal B vaccine for free to people aged 25 and under living in group settings, such as university residences. In January, Prince Edward Island expanded its free vaccine eligibility to all post-secondary students.

Rare but deadly

While IMD cases in Canada are rare, outbreaks do occur across the country, says a 2023 report from the National Advisory Committee on Immunization.

Most cases came from children under age five and adolescents aged 15 to 19, the report said. University campuses in Atlantic Canada have had outbreaks in the last few years, including student deaths. 

One of them, Acadia University student Kai Matthews, 19, died of meningitis in June 2021. His family and friends formed the organization B for Kai to support and promote awareness of the meningococcal B vaccine.

“Kai left an ever-lasting mark on everyone who had the pleasure of knowing him,” the family notes on the B for Kai website.

“If it only takes one person to make a difference, let Kai’s death be the reason for change.”

Four people stand together in a living room holding a graduation photo of a young man.
Kai Matthews’ loved ones, from left to right: sister Vera Matthews, father Norrie Matthews, mother Kari Matthews, and girlfriend Paige Meagher are pictured in 2022. Kai Matthews died of meningitis in 2021. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

It’s only because of stories like Matthews’, and coverage of another student who died at Dalhousie University in 2022, that Plamondon’s mother Marian Coke says she pushed her to go to the hospital.

The stories resonated with her because the Dalhousie student was the same age group as her daughter, Coke told CBC News from Ottawa. So she recognized the symptoms when she spoke with Plamondon.

“If I hadn’t read that article about the girl at Dalhousie, I’m certain my daughter wouldn’t be alive,” Coke said.

“It’s like lightning. You can be dead in 24 hours.”

A smiling young woman on a boat
Plamondon is a varsity athlete at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. She still has headaches five months after contracting meningitis. (Submitted by Megan Plamondon)

Today, both Plamondon and Farun are back in class at Queen’s University. The two don’t know each other, and their cases were never connected, public health previously confirmed with CBC News.

Plamondon says she’s “pretty much” back to normal, but racing still gives her a headache. She’s sharing her story to raise awareness that the shot for meningococcal B isn’t a routine vaccine, but that there’s an option to protect yourself.

“The biggest issue is people don’t know how serious it is. Everyone gets their meningitis shot in Grade 7 or Grade 8, and they assume they’re good for life.”

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