Alberta resident dies from avian flu in North America's first human case of H5N1
Published Wednesday, January 8, 2014 3:59PM EST
Last Updated Wednesday, January 8, 2014 7:21PM EST
North America’s first human case of H5N1, or avian flu, was confirmed after an Alberta patient died from the virus, Health Minister Rona Ambrose announced Wednesday.
The person died Jan. 3 after falling ill on the way back home from a trip to China in late December.
Officials say person-to-person transmission of avian flu is “extremely rare” and the individual’s family members are not showing any signs of illness.
However, they are being monitored as a precaution and have been offered Tamiflu, commonly used for flu treatment and prevention, said Dr. James Talbot, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health.
Officials said they would not release the H5N1 victim’s name, age or gender, even though the patient was often referred to as “she” in media briefings.
People who travelled on the same flights as the H5N1 victim will be contacted and “reassured” of the low risk of infection, health officials said.
The infected person was on the Air Canada 030 flight from Beijing to Vancouver on Dec. 27, and then took the Air Canada 244 flight from Vancouver to Edmonton on the same day.
The individual started feeling unwell on the flight home and was later admitted to hospital, where her condition quickly deteriorated. The patient’s initial symptoms included fever, malaise and headache. There were no respiratory symptoms, which are common in H5N1 infections.
Lab tests later confirmed that the patient was infected with the H5N1 virus.
Officials are not sure how the individual contracted avian flu. H5N1 is commonly found in birds, mainly poultry, in Asia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
Since 2003, there have been 648 lab-confirmed human cases of H5N1 flu reported in 15 countries. Of those, 384 resulted in death.
Officials say the first North American H5N1 case is “isolated” and the risk to the general public is very low. It is in no way related to the seasonal flu, of which the common strain this year is H1N1.
Infectious disease specialist Dr. Neil Rau said he was “impressed” that Alberta health officials made the H5N1 flu diagnosis, since the patient did not exhibit typical respiratory symptoms associated with avian flu.
Rau said he is not concerned that avian flu will spread in Canada because there hasn’t been any “sustained spread” of H5N1 from person-to-person contact ever since the virus was first detected in humans in Southeast Asia in 1997.
Rau said the case of the Alberta patient who seems to have contracted the virus in China is an “unprecedented worldwide event.”