Alberta health officials have confirmed an isolated, fatal case of H5N1 or avian influenza, federal Health Minister Rona Ambrose said Wednesday. 

But officials repeatedly emphasized that there is no risk of transmission between humans.

The infected woman, an Alberta resident who recently travelled to Beijing, China, died Jan. 3.

The case was confirmed in a lab test last night. It's the first such case in North America.

The woman first showed symptoms of the flu on a Dec. 27 flight from Beijing to Vancouver aboard Air Canada flight 030. She continued on to Edmonton on Air Canada flight 244, after spending a few hours in the Vancouver airport, and was admitted to hospital Jan. 1. The symptoms of fever, malaise and headache worsened and the she died two days later. The Public Health Agency of Canada was notified Jan. 5.

There were no respiratory symptoms, said Dr. James Talbot, Alberta's chief medical officer of health.

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Dr. James Talbot, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, noted the patient did not leave Beijing, or visit any farms or markets. (CBC)

The diagnosis at the time of death was an inflammation of the brain and the linings that cover the brain. "That is one of the ways that H5N1 patients die," Talbot said. 

It is not known how the woman contracted the disease. She did not leave Beijing, did not travel to farms and did not visit any markets. 

"Virtually every case has a pretty strong link to a close contact with birds," Talbot said, though he noted there are other settings in which a person might catch H5N1, such as a restaurant that kept live birds for slaughter. 

Rare in humans

Dr. Gregory Taylor, deputy chief public health officer, said the avian form of influenza has been found in birds, mainly poultry, in Asia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

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Colourized transmission electron micrograph of Avian influenza A H5N1 viruses (seen in gold) grown in MDCK cells (seen in green). (Ho/Cynthia Goldsmith, Jackie Katz, Sharif Zaki/CDC/Canadian Press)

There have been fewer than than 650 human cases of bird flu in 15 countries over the last decade, primarily among people who have spent time around infected birds, he said.

"The illness [H5N1] causes in humans is severe and kills about 60 per cent of those who are infected," Taylor said.

"No other illnesses of this type have been identified in Canada since the traveller returned from China. This is an isolated case."

The officials added that the woman was otherwise healthy and it's not yet clear how the person contracted H5N1.

Speaking to Evan Solomon, host of CBC News Network's Power & Politics, Taylor said the patient was relatively young.

"This was a relatively young — well, a young person compared to me, with no underlying health conditions," he said. Taylor is 58.

Risk of getting H5N1 low

Officials emphasized that this is not a disease transmitted between humans.

There were two people travelling with the infected person, whom officials are following for 10 days to ensure they don't have any symptoms. They are also going to notify the other passengers from the flights between Beijing and Edmonton, and are following a group of the patient's "close contacts."

Talbot said family members of the victim are being monitored and treated with medication, but noted that there's no sign they are sick. 

Officials created confusion by referring to the patient as "him" and "her" in order to avoid identifying anyone. Officials said that they would not identify the sex, age or occupation of the patient. They also refused to say whether the infected passenger was an Edmonton resident or whether the patient went to hospital in Edmonton, although the final leg of the flight ended there.

Talbot said reports that the patient was from Edmonton are erroneous. 

Ambrose, who phoned into a news conference in Ottawa, said Canadian officials are working with Chinese authorities on the case, as well as the World Health Organization.

"The risk of getting H5N1 is very low. This is not the regular seasonal flu. This is an isolated case," she said.

An Air Canada spokeswoman said in a statement the airline is co-operating with officials, but referred any questions on the matter to the Public Health Agency of Canada. 


Source: World Health Organization

Figures for all countries except Canada are current as of Dec. 10, 2013. Canada's one case was reported on Jan. 8, 2014.