Canada on Wednesday announced the first H5N1 avian flu death in North America, after a patient who had just returned from China died from the virus.
Canadian authorities said they were urgently contacting the passengers on the victim’s flights.
The case was also the first known instance of someone in North America contracting the illness, Canadian Minister of Health Rona Ambrose told a press conference, stressing that it was an “isolated case.”
The victim, who had recently returned from a trip to Beijing and had been otherwise completely healthy, was from Alberta Province, 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 that the patient died on Friday last week.
“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,” Ambrose added.
The virus is contracted directly from birds, mainly poultry. The illness it causes in people is severe and 60 percent of human cases are fatal.
The victim began to feel ill while on a Dec. 27 flight to Alberta, developing a fever and headache, and was admitted to hospital on Jan. 1 when the symptoms worsened suddenly. The patient then began falling in and out of consciousness, and succumbed to the illness two days later.
A federal microbiology laboratory in Winnipeg, Manitoba, identified the H5N1 virus overnight from a specimen that had been taken from the victim while they were still alive.
Doctors said the deceased had been travelling with two companions who are not sick, but will be kept under observation as a precaution for 10 days — double the usual time it takes for the virus to manifest.
“The patient’s family is not showing any sign of illness. There is no evidence of human-to-human transmission on airplanes. All evidence indicates this is one isolated case in an individual who is infected following exposure in China, although we don’t know at this time how the individual contracted the virus,” Alberta Chief Medical Officer James Talbot said.
Talbot said that the victim had not traveled outside Beijing to other regions of China, nor visited a farm or a public market.
Canadian officials have notified China and the WHO about the case, but said they are at a loss to explain where or how the person contracted the illness. Beijing is 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. The victim flew from Beijing to Vancouver on Air Canada flight 030 on Dec. 27, then went on to Edmonton, Alberta, aboard Air Canada flight 244.
The person’s final destination was not revealed for privacy reasons, but he or she was treated at an Edmonton hospital.
Other recent fatal cases have been reported in Indonesia and Cambodia, in November last year.