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Could a vaccine have prevented son's tragedy?

Aug 03 2012
Mabel Chan holds a photo of her son, Leo Chan, and is comforted by his friend, Alexia Tang. Leo, a University of Victoria student, died in January of meningitis. 

Mabel Chan holds a photo of her son, Leo Chan, and is comforted by his friend, Alexia Tang. Leo, a University of Victoria student, died in January of meningitis.

Photograph by: Mark Van Manen , Postmedia News

It was the flu, or so he thought.

University of Victoria student Leo Chan went to see a doctor in January complaining of neck pain and other symptoms. He got some pills and returned to his campus residence. But by the time the 19-year-old political science student called his mom later that night, he knew it was more serious than a simple flu bug.

"Mom," he said, "I have to call 911."

It was the last time the two would speak. Mabel Chan told Leo to keep her informed, but by the next morning, when she and her husband, C.K., had still not heard from him, they knew something was terribly wrong.

They had no idea just how wrong until they arrived in Victoria from Coquitlam later that day and found Leo on life support in Royal Jubilee Hospital, his distended body rapidly losing a battle with bacterial meningitis.

"He was in an induced coma and he never woke up," she said. "He hung on for a few days so that his parents can talk to him, touch him, pray for him.

And we had to give him permission to go, because his body was so ravaged."

It was bad enough losing their only child, but the Chans suffered a second blow a short time later when they discovered that his death was preventable.

Contacted by other parents whose children had died from meningitis, the Chans learned that the B.C. government's free childhood immunization program only vaccinates against one strain of meningococcal bacteria, type C.

A quadrivalent vaccine that protects against types A, C, W-135 and Y - the strain that killed Leo - exists, but people have to pay $130 to get it.

"We thought that kids have all the vaccinations they need in the school vaccination program," Chan said. "Then we found out that seven other provinces and one territory have this vaccine given to their schoolchildren. Why not B.C.?"

Dr. Monika Naus, director of immunization programs at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, said the rarity of the other strains and the cost-effectiveness of an immunization program all factor into the province's decision.

She noted, for instance, that there has been as few as one case of Y strain meningitis in a year.

"You'd be vaccinating very large numbers of people to prevent a single case," she said. "I'm not saying that's not worth doing at an individual level."

But she said the province placed a higher priority this year on introducing other programs, such as a rotavirus vaccine, a second dose of chickenpox vaccine for children, and a hepatitis A vaccine for aboriginal children.

"These were all ranked as more favourable than a quadrivalent meningococcal vaccine program," she said.

The province, however, reviews its immunization program every year, and will continue to revisit the issue of an expanded meningitis vaccine, she said.

The Chans and other families have launched an online petition at www.meningitisbc.org in hopes of influencing the government's decision.

They also want to alert the public to the fact that a four-strain vaccine exists.

The Chans began gathering signatures for the petition this week at the Coquitlam aquatic centre, where Leo worked summers as a lifeguard and swim instructor.

Chan said her son was a gifted student who believed in social justice and hoped to become a human rights lawyer.

"My husband and I feel that we have to spread the word to save other young lives," she said. "That's what Leo would want us to do - to prevent another tragedy.

"No parent should have to go through what we are going through. No parent should have to tell their kid, 'There's too much suffering, you can go.' "

lkines@timescolonist.com

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