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Canadian is first to die from H5N1 bird flu in North America

Vials of H5N1 flu vaccine by Beijing-based drug maker Sinovac Biotech Ltd. are seen during production at Sinovac facilities in Beijing, Nov. 24, 2011.

Andy Wong/AP

Canada has recorded its first human case of deadly H5N1 bird flu, in an Alberta resident who had just returned from a trip to China.

Government officials stressed there is no danger to the general public from the unusual case.

"This is a very rare and isolated case," said Dr. James Talbot, chief medical officer for Alberta. "Avian influenza is not easily transmitted from person to person. It is not the same virus that is currently present in seasonal influenza in Alberta."

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There have been only 648 human cases of H5N1 recorded in people worldwide, and 384 of the infected have died. Virtually all those cases occurred in people who are known to have had direct contact with infected poultry.

Public health officials refused to provide the person's gender, age, profession or name, citing patient confidentiality provisions in the law. However, they did provide travel details.

The person took Air Canada flight 030 from Beijing to Vancouver and Air Canada flight 244 from Vancouver to Edmonton, both on Dec 27. While there is no risk to fellow travellers, health officials said they will contact all passengers on those flights to reassure them.

"This is not a disease that is transmitted between humans," said Dr. Theresa Tam, director-general of the Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response at the Public Health Agency of Canada. As a result, there will be no travel advisory for Canadians travelling to China, and no special measures will be taken for travellers arriving from Beijing, she added.

Air Canada issued a brief response.

"We have been contacted by the Public Health Agency of Canada who provide the direction and guidelines we follow on these matters, and we will cooperate with health officials as requested," spokeswoman Isabelle Arthur said in an e-mail.  "Questions on the handling of a public health matter such as this should be directed to PHAC."

It is not known how the disease was contracted but public health officials said the person did not visit a poultry farm or market. That is highly unusual and doubly so because no human case of H5N1 has been recorded in Beijing. "China is going to be very interested in this," said Dr. Gregory Taylor, deputy chief public health officer for Canada.

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The World Health Organization recorded 38 cases of H5N1 last year, including 24 deaths. This is the first death in North America.

After a 1997 outbreak in Hong Kong, which led to the mass slaughter of poultry, the H5N1 bird flu virus wasn't seen again until late 2003, when it began the outbreak that continues to this day.

With a report from Carrie Tait in Calgary

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About the Author
Public health reporter

André Picard is a health reporter and columnist at The Globe and Mail, where he has been a staff writer since 1987. He is also the author of three bestselling books.André has received much acclaim for his writing. More

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