First case of H5N1 confirmed

Alberta Health officials have confirmed a fatal case of H5N1 influenza in an individual who recently returned from Beijing, China.

The individual died on Jan. 3 after being treated in Edmonton for a severe illness, B.C.’s provincial health officer Perry Kendall told reporters during a press conference Wednesday.

“This is the first reported case of H5N1 in North America,” Kendall said.

Since 2003, there have been about 600 cases reported world-wide in 15 countries.

“It has a mortality rate of in excess of 60 per cent so it is a very serious illness, all the cases have been hospitalized,” Kendall said.

The individual who contracted H5N1 travelled through the Vancouver International Airport en route from Beijing to Edmonton, and spent about two and a half hours in the airport on Dec. 27 between 12:30 and 3 p.m., waiting for a connecting flight.

“It’s now been 12 days since this case returned to Canada,” Kendall said. “Travelling contacts who might have been close to this patient would, by now, have shown recognized signs and symptoms.”

Human to human transmission of H5N1 is very rare and if it happens has been confined to close family contacts, Kendall said.

“The vast majority of human cases of H5N1 have been acquired from infected poultry. It is therefore extremely unlikely that any passengers or casual airport contacts of this case would have been put at risk.”

It is recommended that people who are travelling to China avoid poultry markets, avoid contact with live chickens or birds, and if they are going to eat chicken ensure that it is thoroughly cooked, Kendall warned.

“I would like to reassure British Columbians that we have done an extensive risk assessment with Health Canada and with Alberta Health officials and we see minimal risk to anyone who would have been exposed to this individual on either of the flights or in the Vancouver Airport,” Kendall said.

Since April 2013, commissions across B.C. have been placed on high alert to recognize and report severe respiratory illness in any patient with a history of travel to China because of H7N9 concerns, or to the Middle East because of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome corona virus (MERS CoV) concerns that travel within 14 days prior to the onset of their illness.

“Since Dec. 27, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control has not been notified of any cases,” Kendall said. “The provincial public health microbiology lab has been conducting increasing testing for influenza in response to the recent H1N1 and absolutely no cases of H5N1 have been detected in B.C. to date.”

Travellers to China who experience new respiratory symptoms accompanied by breathing difficulties or other signs of worsening illness within 14 days of their return should consult with their doctor, Kendall said. Most respiratory illnesses at this time of year, including those felt by returning travellers will be due to common viral illness, such as seasonal influenza, including the descendants of the 2009 H1N1 virus, which is currently affecting people in B.C.

Although the current influenza vaccine will not protect against H5N1 public health officials still remind members of the public that the H1N1 virus is the predominant cause of illness in B.C. right now and H1N1 is preventable through immunization.

Both H1N1 and H5N1 can be treated with antivirals, which are most effective if given within the first 48 hours of the onset of influenza symptoms.

The Interior Health Unit in Williams Lake said Thursday it still has seasonal flu vaccines in stock, which have included the H1N1 vaccine since 2009.


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