Nova Scotia

N.S. doctors urged to watch for new bird flu strain

The provincial health department is urging doctors in Nova Scotia to be on the lookout for a new form of bird flu.

Though health officials say it's unlikely new bird flu strain H7N9 will appear in province

The H7N9 avian influenza virus has infected 87 people in several regions of China and caused 17 deaths. This strain does not appear to make birds sick, making birds carrying the virus harder to identify. (Associated Press)

The provincial health department is urging doctors in Nova Scotia to be on the lookout for a new form of bird flu.

Health officials are saying it's unlikely the new strain of influenza will show up here in the province, but they're not taking any chances.

Dr. Robert Strang, the province’s chief public health officer, issued a memo on April 12, advising Nova Scotia physicians to look for anyone with flu-like symptoms who has recently travelled to China or anyone with severe respiratory symptoms.

The H7N9 avian influenza virus has infected 87 people in several regions of China and caused 17 deaths. 

Though the World Health Organization said Friday there’s no evidence a new bird flu strain is spreading easily among people in China, even though there may be sporadic cases of the virus spreading to people who have close contacts with infected patients.

The source of the virus remains unclear because only a handful of birds — out of tens of thousands that have been tested — have been found to carry the H7N9 virus. Also, many of the patients have no reported history of contact with birds.

Still, Chinese health and agricultural authorities have closed live poultry markets and slaughtered birds as preventive measures based on suspicion that sick people had contact with infected fowl.

Dr. Todd Hatchette, the service chief of microbiology at Halifax’s Victoria General Hospital, said there is a limited chance the virus will show up here in Nova Scotia.

However, he said that medical officials are busy ensuring protocols are in place, just in case a strange flu appears. 

Hatchette has experience with new strains of influenza. His laboratory was the first in the country to confirm H1N1 during the last pandemic in 2009.

"I remember the day vividly. It was a Saturday afternoon when we identified an unusual strain. We had to transport the virus by police escort to the national lab in Winnipeg," said Hatchette. 

He said the H1N1 strain was identified within 24 hours and he said he is confident that if a new strain of flu appears in Nova Scotia, the right protocols are in place for a swift identification of the virus.

New virus unusual, does not make birds sick

Health officials in China are still trying to determine where this new strain of flu has come from and whether the strain can spread by human-to-human contact.

"We know that this it is an avian virus," said Hatchette. But he said this avian virus is unusual in that it doesn't make birds sick, only humans. 

Not being able to visually identify sick birds means that the virus can silently spread for a longer period of time amongst the human population. 

"At this point it doesn't look as though there has been any human-to-human infection," said Hatchette. 

But since some of the people infected with the virus in China haven't had any contact with birds, so there are still a lot of unanswered questions, he said.

Diane Dafoe, owner of Dafoe Travel Group in Dartmouth, specializes in corporate global travel. She said addressing health concerns is an important part of travel for international clients. 

Along with government websites, she has travel health experts who she relies upon to keep her informed.

Hatchette said he wonders if we are seeing the tip of the iceberg in China or are there a lot of other less severe or even asymptomatic cases that don't show any signs at all.

These are all questions, he said, that he is discussing with health officials on a daily basis. 

Health Canada has issued an assessment saying the H7N9 health risk from China to Canada is currently low. 

Hatchette said testing in China has shown the avian influenza is sensitive to antivirals and said Canada has a stockpile of the medication.

With files form Yvonne Colbert, Cyndi Fendley Sweeney