H7N9 virus

Woman flying from Hong Kong to Vancouver becomes first human bird flu case in North America

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 January, 2015, 9:44am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 January, 2015, 2:39am

North America's first case of bird flu in humans has been identified in a Vancouver-area woman, who returned to the city on a flight from Hong Kong this month.

Canadian health authorities said the patient, who tested positive to the H7N9 strain of avian flu on Monday morning, was not gravely ill. Because the risk of transmission was low, the woman was being allowed to recover at home, authorities said.

"The individual did not require hospitalisation and is recovering in self-isolation," a statement issued on Monday by the health ministers of Canada and British Columbia said. "All close contacts of the individual have been identified and their health is being monitored by provincial public health authorities. The Canadian health care system has strong procedures and controls in place to respond to and control the spread of infectious diseases and protect healthcare workers."

The patient arrived back in Vancouver on Air Canada Flight 8 on January 12. Canada's Public Health Agency stressed that the patient had "recently returned to Canada from China", but Flight 8 departs from Hong Kong.

"Though the individual was not symptomatic [during the flight], and H7N9 does not transmit easily from person to person, the agency is committed to ensuring Canadians have all the information they need, as a result, we are sharing the flight number," the agency said.

It said the woman was a resident of British Columbia and that she only became sick after arriving back home. The H7N9 strain has not been detected in Canadian poultry.

A 68-year-old woman tested positive for H7N9 in Hong Kong last month, and the discovery of the virus in poultry imported from the mainland resulted in a cull and the closure of the Cheung Sha Wan market. Live poultry sales were halted until January 11.

"I would like to reassure British Columbians that while we have identified the first case of influenza H7N9 here in BC, the risk to the public remains very low," said BC Health Minister Terry Lake. "This strain does not transmit easily from person to person, and I am pleased to report that the patient is recovering. I would like to send my best wishes to [her family]."

The Globe and Mail newspaper reported the patient and her husband, both aged in their 50s, had travelled together, and both were now sick. Tests have not yet confirmed the man is infected with H7N9. The newspaper quoted Bonnie Henry, British Columbia's deputy provincial health officer, as saying the couple "did some touring of areas and villages in China where poultry are seen throughout the village, but there was not a particularly high-risk exposure that we were able to identify".

Hong Kong's Centre for Health Protection is seeking more information from the Canadian health authorities, a spokesman said, adding that all inbound travellers are screened by thermal imaging at border control points, with suspected cases referred to hospitals.

H7N9 emerged in China in 2013, and last year infected more than 450 people there, killing 175, the World Health Organisation said.

Canada's large and well-travelled mainland Chinese and Hong Kong immigrant populations have previously had public health implications for the country, most significantly during the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars).

A major outbreak of the disease occurred in Toronto, triggered by a patient who was infected in Hong Kong's Metropole Hotel and then flew to Canada.

Forty-four people died and more than 400 were infected in Toronto.

Vancouver narrowly avoided a major outbreak when another person infected at the Metropole was swiftly diagnosed and isolated upon arrival in British Columbia.

Additional reporting by Emily Tsang