The mother of a 10-year-old Edmonton boy who came down with diphtheria — potentially exposing his elementary school class to the disease — said her son is up to date on all of his vaccinations.
“I’ve always been on top of that, I’m a firm believer in immunizations,” Rebecca Shewchuk said on Tuesday.
Shewchuk’s son is a student at Evansdale Elementary School in north Edmonton. Edmonton Public Schools said it was notified by Alberta Health Services (AHS) on Friday about a case of cutaneous diphtheria at one of its schools.
A letter was sent out on Monday to families with students at Evansdale School, which stated no other cases of diphtheria had been identified and that the risk to the public is “extremely low.”
“We are working closely with AHS and following their advice and direction on this matter, to ensure that we do everything we can to keep our students and staff healthy,” Edmonton Public Schools said in an email on Tuesday morning.
Edmonton Public Schools said families of all students who may have been exposed were contacted directly by AHS.
Diphtheria is a serious bacterial infection that impacts the nose, throat and skin, and can cause severe breathing problems, heart failure, paralysis and even death. About one in 10 people who get diphtheria die, according to AHS.
Diphtheria can be easily spread through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes, and also through direct contact with an infected person.
Shewchuk doesn’t know how her son contracted the disease, but said he has battled severe eczema since he was five months old, and that makes him more susceptible to certain illnesses.
“He’s doing OK. We’ve been through sicknesses before, infections and whatnot,” Shewchuk told Global News on Monday. “He’s trying to be in good spirits. He’s trying to be strong.”
Shewchuk and her two sons have been in isolation inside their home since Friday when they learned the 10-year-old boy had the disease. She said the diagnosis came after he went to the doctor to have an open sore behind his ear tested. She said the swab came back positive for diphtheria.
“They didn’t know where he picked it up,” Shewchuk said. “I was scared for him, still am. It’s been a really long, hard road.”
Dr. Chris Sikora with AHS said he could not speak specifically about the affected student, but said the child’s travel history was not a factor. He said the general public is not at risk.
Cutaneous diphtheria primarily causes skin infection, Sikora said, adding the disease is vaccine-preventable.
“It’s a very uncommon disease. I believe the last case we had in the Edmonton area would have been well over 10 years ago,” Sikora explained.
“Historically, across Canada, we might get one — possibly two — cases on an annual basis. Through most of North America, it is a very uncommon disease, thanks in part to our immunization overall.”
Lisa Connolly, whose son Jessy is in Grade 5 at Evansdale School, said she received a phone call from AHS on Saturday, notifying her that a student in her son’s class had been diagnosed with diphtheria.
Connolly said her initial reactions were shock, anger and confusion.
“The only thing I knew about diphtheria was that he’d had the immunizations. I didn’t know what it was or what could happen. I didn’t even think we had it in this day and age.”
A health-care worker arrived at her house about an hour later to swab her son’s throat and nose.
“She dressed herself in gloves and a face mask and a special suit to protect herself,” Connolly explained.
There is a diphtheria vaccine, but Connolly said she was informed by AHS there is still a small chance her son could contract the disease despite the fact he’s immunized.
“They just said there was still a small chance he could get it because it’s a bacteria. It could be living on his skin. He could have come in contact with said child,” Connolly explained. “She said, ‘Yes, immunizations aren’t 100 per cent.'”
Jessy is being treated with antibiotics and has been told to stay at home until they can clear him of the disease.
“The last few days have been really hard because he hasn’t been able to go anywhere,” Connolly said, adding her son is an active boy who plays hockey, swims and is involved in cub scouts.
“He couldn’t go to school and he loves school.”
Shewchuk said her son is also on antibiotics and he’s been feeling better over the past couple of days. The family has been told to remain inside their home until her son’s tests come back negative for the illness.
“Public Health calls us every day to see how we’re doing,” she said. “We can’t return to normal life until we get a negative result and we don’t know how long that’s going to be… He really wants to go back to school.”
Edmonton Public Schools said “out of an abundance of caution” custodial staff completed a deep clean of a couple of rooms in the school.
Anyone with questions about the situation is asked to contact Health Link at 811.