OTTAWA: Canada announced on Wednesday (Thursday in Manila) the first H5N1 avian flu death in North America, of a patient who had just returned from China, and said it was urgently contacting airline passengers on the victim’s flights.
It was also the first known instance of someone in North America contracting the illness, Canada Health Minister Rona Ambrose told a press conference, stressing it was an “isolated case.”
The victim, who had recently returned from a trip to Beijing and had been otherwise completely healthy, was from the western plains province of Alberta, officials said, adding they were withholding the person’s gender and other identifying details to protect the family’s privacy.
“I am here to confirm North America’s first human case of H5N1, also known as avian flu,” Ambrose said, confirming the patient died on January 3.
“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 added.
The virus is contracted directly from birds, mainly poultry. The illness it causes in humans is severe and 60 percent of human cases are fatal.
The victim began to feel ill during the December 27 flight home to Alberta province, developing a fever and headache. They were admitted to hospital on January 1 when the symptoms worsened suddenly and they began falling in and out of conciousness.
The patient died two days later.
The federal microbiology laboratory in Winnipeg, Manitoba, identified the H5N1 virus overnight from a specimen that had been taken while the victim was still alive.
Canadian officials have notified China and the World Health Organization, but said they are at a loss to explain where or how the person caught the illness. Beijing had been believed to be free of the bird flu virus.
Authorities have also secured passenger lists and were contacting others on the same flights as the victim to reassure them of the “extremely low” chance of contagion.