One Central Albertan has died from the seasonal flu, but health officials refuse to say where Canada’s first avian flu death occurred in the province.
“I have the sad duty to tell you that an Albertan who had visited China has died here at home of the avian flu. This person came home to Alberta from China on Dec. 27, went to hospital on Jan. 1 seriously sick and passed away on Jan. 3 despite the best possible care being offered by our health care system,” said Health Minister Fred Horne at a press conference in Edmonton on Wednesday.
“This case of avian flu in Alberta is very rare and isolated. Other Albertans are not at risk.” It is the first case in North America.
To preserve the individual’s confidentiality, Alberta Health would not provide the age, gender, profession and community the avian flu victim called home, although it was confirmed that it was not Edmonton where the person landed after a trip to visit family in Beijing.
“We have continued to follow the close contacts and none of them have developed the symptoms. As a consequence of the fact that it’s very rare to see transmission, and we took extra precautions and no one is symptomatic, I am confident that there will be no transmission within the province of Alberta,” said Dr. Jim Talbot, chief medical officer for Alberta Health.
He said the victim was previously healthy and died of H5N1 following inflammation of the brain and lining that covers the brain.
The most common way to get avian flu is from close contacts with birds and maybe in restaurants where birds could be slaughtered at the table.
“They did not go outside Beijing. They did not travel to farms and they were not at markets. So at the moment it remains a bit of a mystery,” Talbot said.
He said the flu strain H5N1 is not to be confused with H1N1, which is the dominate seasonal flu strain this season and one of the three strains in the flu vaccine. The other two are H3N2 and 1B. H5N1 is not in the vaccine.
Talbot said avian flu is not easily transmitted person to person and is often rapidly fatal. Meanwhile, H1N1 is easily transmitted and very rarely fatal.
As of Jan. 7, a total of nine people have died from seasonal flu across Alberta. In addition to the one death in Alberta Health Services Central Zone, there were five deaths in Calgary, two in Edmonton and one in Southern Alberta.
As of Monday, 83 people were treated in intensive care units across the province out 354 hospitalized.
In Central Zone, of 24 people hospitalized, five have been in ICU.
A total of 204 people have been confirmed with the flu in Central Alberta and 188 had the H1N1 strain that targets young to middle-age adults.
“It’s been busy. Every flu season, health systems are stressed. Hospitalizations increase. ICU beds go into short supply and unfortunately some Albertans die. But this is a normal flu season,” Talbot said.
The number of deaths so far is similar to the 2012-13 flu season, he said.
As of Tuesday, 985,024 people have been immunized in Alberta, including about 150,000 who got vaccinated after some encouragement from the health minister last Friday.
Last year 900,000 Albertans were vaccinated.
The province recently located more vaccine and 65,000 more doses that arrived on Monday will be going to AHS immunization clinics.
Alberta has enough vaccine to immunize about 1.1 to 1.2 million people. If all the vaccine is used, 28 per cent of Albertans will be immunized.
Talbot said the province has about 80,000 to 100,000 doses left and the supply will likely be finished by the end of the week.
Universal immunizations will continue to be available.
The flu season is expected to peak late January or early February.