Alberta doctors advised to watch for new coronavirus as 1st North American case diagnosed

Doctors in Alberta are being told to be on the lookout for a new, SARS-like illness that originated in China, where it has killed six and made several hundred people sick, as news broke Tuesday that the first North American case had been diagnosed.

Outbreak in China blamed for 6 deaths but no reports of illness in Canada

Medical staff transfer patients to Jin Yintan hospital on Jan. 17, in Wuhan, Hubei, China. (Getty Images)

Doctors in Alberta are being told to be on the lookout for a new, SARS-like illness that originated in China, where it has killed six and made several hundred people sick, as news broke Tuesday that the first North American case had been found.

On Tuesday a spokesperson from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said a traveller from China had been diagnosed in Seattle with the new coronavirus.

Officials in China now say the new form of coronavirus —  which causes pneumonia — can be spread from person to person. The outbreak in China tripled in size over the weekend, with 258 cases confirmed in the central city of Wuhan by the end of Monday.

So far in China, the virus has mostly been concentrated in Wuhan city, although isolated cases have also been reported in Shanghai and Beijing. Outside of China, cases have been confirmed in Thailand, South Korea and Japan.

Canada's chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, says there are no reports of the illness in Canada.

And while it can spread between people, so far it doesn't appear to do so easily, she says.

"We judge that the ability of this virus to spread within Canada is low," she said.

Three Canadians have been checked out for coronavirus, but it was ruled out each time.

In 2003, an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) that also originated in China killed 44 people in Canada and nearly 800 worldwide.

Alberta health officials 'keeping an eye' on it

Health officials in Alberta are working to prepare in case it shows up here.

"We've put together an advisory so that front-line clinicians know to be asking for travel histories if they have patients coming in who are reporting symptoms of cough and fever, which is a part of standard protocol when patients come in complaining about fever and cough, so we're reinforcing that message," said Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chef medical officer of health in Edmonton on Tuesday.

"We are doing as many other countries are doing, a lot of work to be prepared in a precautionary way, so even with that increased travel I think the measures we're taking in Alberta will keep Albertans safe." 

Hinshaw said if Albertans are concerned about their health, influenza is a much bigger threat. But as always, she said, simple steps like washing hands will prevent against viruses that spread through coughing or sneezing. 

Alberta's acting deputy chief medical officer of health, Dr. Andre Corriveau, said officials started sending advisories about coronavirus to Alberta doctors late last week.

"We're recommending that especially in emergency rooms, that people get a travel history when they see someone with respiratory symptoms and be sure, if some person has been to Wuhan, the medical officer in that region be notified." 

Doctors are being asked to take precautions with patients showing mild or severe respiratory illness in order to prevent spread to themselves, clinic staff and other patients.

They should also contact the zone medical officer of health if patients have travelled to Wuhan, China, within 14 days prior to the onset of symptoms.

Risk to Albertans is low

"Although the current risk to Albertans is low, infection with this pathogen should be considered in cases of acute respiratory illness without a clear etiology in patients who have traveled in the prior 14 days to Wuhan," the memo to physicians says.

Corriveau says Chinese officials are working hard to contain the virus and there is no reason to believe it's spreading more broadly at this point. 

Screening is being beefed up at international airports in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.
The Calgary International Airport says that's not the case here, since there are no direct flights from China.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is set to hold an emergency meeting Wednesday to discuss whether the new coronavirus outbreak constitutes an international health emergency.

With files from Jennifer Lee, Min Dhariwal and Thomson Reuters


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