Canada Confirms First H5N1 Bird Flu Case, Death In North America
January 10, 2014

Canada Confirms First H5N1 Bird Flu Case, Death In North America

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

A strain of avian influenza that has sickened nearly 650 people in China and neighboring regions has now been confirmed in North America. The H5N1 bird flu strain, which has also killed 385 people worldwide, was discovered on January 1, 2014 in a Canadian tourist who had recently returned from China.

The patient, who died on January 3 due to complications of the illness, had been in China from Dec 6 through 27 and was symptomatic during the travel home, experiencing malaise and fever. Two other individuals who traveled with the patient have so far shown no flu symptoms.

Canadian health officials made the report to the World Health Organization, saying the patient was previously healthy with no existing medical conditions. A laboratory test conducted at the Alberta Provincial Lab determined the illness to be H5N1, and it was later confirmed by Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory.

According to AFP’s Michael Comte, Canada Health Minister Rona Ambrose said during a news briefing that this was the first identified case of H5N1 in North America, stressing that this was an “isolated case.”

"I want to reassure the public this is an isolated case and the risk of H5N1 to Canadians is very low. There is no evidence of sustained human-to-human transmission," the minister noted.

While the victim’s travel partner was showing no signs of illness, the Health Ministry said it was urgently contacting all airline passengers on the victim’s flights. Health officials said they were not releasing the identity of the victim to protect the family’s privacy.

It is not yet known how the victim contracted the disease, but given that it mainly comes from live poultry, officials surmise that this was the most likely mode of transmission in this patient. However, it was reported that the victim was not in contact with any person with a known illness and had not been in contact with live animals.

The victim began to feel ill during the flight home on Dec 27 and was admitted to hospital on January 1, 2014; the patient died two days later after falling in and out of consciousness as symptoms worsened.

A specimen that was taken while the patient was still alive was identified as H5N1 during an overnight test in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The victim’s travel partners will be kept under close surveillance, despite showing no signs or symptoms of flu. Health officials said they will be kept under quarantine for 10 days, which is double the usual time it takes for the virus to manifest itself, reports AFP.

As well as the victim’s travel partners, family members are also being monitored and have so far shown no signs or symptoms of flu.

Alberta Chief Medical Officer James Talbot agreed that this is just an isolated case in an individual infected during travel to China.

"Although we don't know at this time how the individual contracted the virus," he added.

Canadian health officials have alerted China, but said that because there is a lack of data on how the person was infected, it will not likely do Chinese health officials any good. However, the victim did only visit Beijing during the trip, a region that has been thought to be H5N1-free previously.

Despite an urgent rush by health officials to contact all airline passengers who were on the same flights as the victim, Talbot maintained that there is no evidence that anyone else was likely to have been infected by the victim.

"This is not a disease that's transmitted between humans so unless you were in the infected in the area [sic] and were in contact with an infected bird you are not going to get this illness," Dr. Theresa Tam of Health Canada, told the Associated Press.

Avian flu is generally not transmissible between birds and humans, though there are rare instances when strains can mutate and make the move to humans. H5, H7 and H9, as well as a recent case of H10, strains have all mutated and jumped to humans, but mainly through direct contact with infected live poultry. None of these strains have yet to mutate to the point where they can easily transmit between humans.

H5N1 has been around in humans the longest, first reported in 2003. Last year’s outbreak of H7N9 is also rapidly progressing, despite an early near-successful attempt to stop the disease dead in its tracks.