First bird ’flu death reported
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, reportedly was feeling ill on Dec. 27 while flying from Beijing to Vancouver and then on to Edmonton.
Federal public health officials said confirmation of the rare exported H5N1 infection was made Tuesday evening and Canada informed officials of the World Health Organization yesterday.
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 noted.
“This case is not part of the seasonal ’flu, which circulates in Canada every year,” she stressed.
The discovery of a case of H5N1 so far afield already was garnering international attention yesterday. But ’flu experts said that in some ways, the novelty isn’t that a case was found here, it was that such an event hadn’t happened sooner.
“I’m surprised we haven’t seen at least one importation before now into North America . . . given the connectedness that we have with that region [China],” said Dr. Danuta Skowronski, an influenza expert at the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control
“We’ve been preparing for an incursion for over a decade,” acknowledged Dr. Theresa Tam, head of the Public Health Agency of Canada’s health security infrastructure branch.
“It’s actually much rarer than we had ever thought,” she added.
“This is the first case in this whole continent.”
Officials did not release the name of the patient nor did they indicate how old the person was, their gender, or where he or she lived in Alberta.
During the news conference, the term “she” was used several times, but it wasn’t clear if that was a slip and officials insisted they would not confirm the person’s gender.
Contacts of the Alberta resident, as well as 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.
They have been offered the antiviral drug Tamiflu, which can be taken to prevent infection, as well as to treat it.
“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.”
The Public Health Agency will be contacting passengers who were on the same flights as the Alberta traveller to check on their health.
But Dr. Gregory Taylor, Canada’s deputy chief public health officer, said it was unlikely transmission occurred on the planes.
Dr. Perry Kendall, B.C.’s chief medical officer, said the person spent about two-and-a-half hours in Vancouver International Airport waiting for the connecting flight and was there from about 12:30 p.m.-3 p.m. (PST).
He, too, suggested it was unlikely that the infected person transmitted the virus to others en route.
In fact, ’flu experts were viewing the event as interesting, and a useful reminder that international travel can spread infectious diseases around the globe.
But they weren’t unduly concerned.
“Every H5N1 case makes you nervous. But I don’t think it should be a cause for alarm,” said Dr. Allison McGeer, head of infection control at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital.
“It’s good that people are watching for it,” she added.
“Brilliant that people identified the issue and made the diagnosis.”