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Death from H5N1 a first for North America

Albertan had recently returned from China

Na Son Nguyen / The Canadian Press files
Ducks walk around an area where a suspected outbreak of the H5N1 bird flu virus  was reported in Vietnam in February 2012.

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Na Son Nguyen / The Canadian Press files Ducks walk around an area where a suspected outbreak of the H5N1 bird flu virus was reported in Vietnam in February 2012. (CP)

OTTAWA -- Canada has reported North America's first case of H5N1 bird flu infection, in an Alberta resident who recently returned from a month's visit to China.

The person, whose name and age were not revealed, was complaining of feeling ill on Dec. 27 when flying from Beijing to Vancouver and then on to Edmonton. The patient was admitted to hospital on Jan. 1 and died Jan. 3.

Federal public health officials said confirmation of the rare H5N1 infection was made Tuesday evening and Canada informed officials of the World Health Organization on Wednesday.

Health Minister Rona Ambrose, who took part in a hastily assembled news conference in Ottawa, said the case is likely to be an isolated one.

"The risk of getting H5N1 is very low," Ambrose said. "This case is not part of the seasonal flu, which circulates in Canada every year."

Contacts of the Alberta resident and the health-care workers who cared for the patient are being monitored for signs of illness but to date there does not appear to have been onward transmission of the virus.

"None of them have symptoms and the risk of developing symptoms is extremely low," said Dr. James Talbot, Alberta's chief medical officer of health.

"Precautions for health-care staff were also taken as part of this individual's hospital treatment."

As well, the Public Health Agency of Canada will be contacting passengers who were on the same flights as the person to check on their health. But Dr. Gregory Taylor, acting chief public health officer, said it's unlikely transmission occurred on the planes.

The person travelled on Air Canada flight 030 from Beijing to Vancouver and Air Canada 244 from Vancouver to Edmonton.

Both flights were on Dec. 27.

There have been roughly 650 confirmed cases of H5N1 since a large and ongoing outbreak of the virus in poultry erupted in Southeast Asia in late 2003. Human cases have been reported from 15 countries; Canada makes it 16.

While the virus does not often transmit to people, it can cause severe illness when it does. About 60 per cent of known cases have died from their infections.

In this case, it was not immediately clear what the person was suffering from, officials said.

The patient had a fever, complained of headache and quickly developed symptoms of a brain infection. But the person did not have a cough, a common though not always present symptom of influenza.

In an interview with The Canadian Press, Taylor said initially it was thought the person had a clot in the lung -- a pulmonary embolism -- but that was ruled out. And after the first visit to hospital by the person, on Dec. 28, the patient was sent home.

The person's condition continued to deteriorate and the patient returned to hospital on Jan. 1. The health-care team caring for the patient also thought the person might have meningococcal encephalitis, an infection of the brain. But a chest X-ray showed signs of pneumonia and the unidentified hospital ran a battery of tests. The influenza A test came back positive.

When Alberta's provincial lab realized the flu virus wasn't one of the seasonal flu strains, it contacted the Public Health Agency and sent a sample for testing to the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, Taylor said.

The Alberta lab identified the virus as an H5; it didn't have the capacity to identify which neuraminidase or "N" number the virus had. Almost simultaneously, the national lab discovered the virus was an H5N1, he said.

 

-- The Canadian Press

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