H5N1 avian influenza has claimed its first fatality in North America, killing an unidentified Canadian citizen who had traveled to Beijing in December to visit family. Public health officials in Alberta confirmed the death at a press conference earlier today.
“This is a very rare and isolated case,” Dr. James Talbot, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, told reporters. “Virtually every case has a pretty strong link to a close contact with birds. From the experience that we have so far, person-to-person contact is extremely rare, and it almost always is only associated with people in the exact same household.”
Talbot stated that his medical team was unsure how the victim contracted the virus, adding that the individual had not visited any farms or public markets. In fact, Talbot indicated that she had not even ventured outside of Beijing – a city thought to be free of H5N1.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Although there has never been a case of human-to-human transmission of avian flu on an airplane, Canadian authorities are reaching out to passengers who flew on the same flights as the victim – which included Air China flight 030 from Beijing to Vancouver and Air Canada flight 244 from Vancouver to Edmonton, both on December 27.
“This is not a disease that is transmitted between humans,” Dr. Theresa Tam, director-general of the Center for Emergency Preparedness and Response at the Public Health Agency of Canada, told The Globe and Mail. “As a result, there will be no travel advisory for Canadians travelling to China, and no special measures will be taken for travelers arriving from Beijing.”
Avian flu is generally concentrated in Asia and almost exclusively spread to people who are in direct contact with poultry. Since the most recent human outbreak of H5N1, which has been ongoing since 2003, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Western Pacific Region has reported 648 infections that have led to 284 deaths – representing a nearly 60 percent fatality rate. The data was recorded in 15 countries, with Vietnam, Cambodia and China accounting for the vast majority of H5N1 infections. Indonesia, however, leads in both cases and deaths from H5N1, with 195 and 163, respectively.
H5N1 is the strain most commonly associated with avian flu, but the H7 and H9 subtypes have also made the jump from birds to humans. In December, more than a dozen people in Hong Kong were quarantined over an H7N9 scare after an Indonesian maid contracted the virus.
Between December 13, 2013 and January 2, 2014, the WHO reported four hospitalizations due to H7N9 in China – all isolated to Guangdong Province. One person in Hong Kong contracted H9N2 in the same period.