Should Canadians be alarmed by H5N1 bird flu death? Docs say no

Above: WHO is now tracing the last steps of the Canadian woman who died of the H5N1 Avian flu after returning from a trip to China. Mike Le Couteur has the latest details.

TORONTO – It’s the first case of H5N1 bird flu in North America and it left an Alberta resident dead. But Canadian health officials and doctors say that the public shouldn’t be worried.

An Alberta resident who travelled to China in December was admitted to hospital in Alberta on New Year’s Day. By Jan. 3, the patient died. It’s the first case of H5N1 Canada has ever seen since the deadly influenza first surfaced over a decade ago.

READ MORE: Deadly case of avian flu kills Alberta woman

But Alberta’s chief medical officer of health says it’s a “very rare and isolated case.”

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“Avian influenza is not easily transmitted from person to person. I expect that with the rarity of transmission and the additional precautions taken, there will be no more cases in Alberta,” Dr. James Talbot said.

Global News asked two Canadian infectious disease experts about H5N1 and why Canadians shouldn’t be worried.

“Having H5N1 come on Canadian soil is a definite landmark moment, but it’s equally important to mention that it was an isolated case,” Jason Tetro, a Toronto-based microbiologist and author of science bestseller The Germ Code, told Global News.

“There’s no reason to panic,” he said.

READ MORE: What you need to know about avian flu (H5N1)

For starters, H5N1 is an avian flu and doesn’t typically infect humans. With only 648 cases of H5N1 documented around the world since 2003, that makes the influenza “uncommon” in humans, Dr. Joel Kettner, medical director of the International Centre for Infectious Disease, told Global News.

It’s only surfaced in parts of South East Asia like Vietnam, China and Indonesia, to Egypt and Mexico. It’s also different from H7N9 – another bird flu out of China that’s been nicknamed the “most lethal flu virus” so far by the World Health Organization.

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ABOVE: Infectious diseases specialist Dr. Michael Gardam spoke with Global News about the threat posed by the H5N1 virus, and why he doesn’t believe Canadians should panic just yet

READ MORE: Why the WHO is calling H7N9 one of the ‘most lethal’ flu viruses

“I do not think there’s any evidence at this time that would lead to different types of actions such as avoiding travel, or changing behaviour in regards to going to school or work,” Kettner said.

“The risk seems so low and the occurrence so rare that the risk I would say is negligible and immeasurable.”

Kettner was also Manitoba’s chief medical officer of health from 1999 to 2012.

To contract H5N1, a person would have to come into direct contact with the infected bird or its feces, often during butchering, defeathering or food preparation, according to officials.

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Even then, Tetro says that humans would have to be within “kissing distance” with the bird, and for the duration of several breaths, to be infected with large amounts of the virus.

WATCH: Canada has recorded its first-ever fatal  case of H5N1 influenza. John Daly has more on the victim, how the case is connected to Vancouver.

Tetro says that with H1N1, even at its worst, it only kills about 0.1 per cent of its victims. But H5N1 is particularly deadly – 60 per cent of people infected with it die.

READ MORE: Alberta, Sask. severely hit by H1N1 flu so far, Canadian doctors say

“It’s one of those diseases where if you get it you better have a will,” he warned.

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But because it moves so swiftly, it doesn’t leave its victims with much time to spread the disease. And we already know it’s not known for human-to-human transmission.

With a regular flu, patients could feel aches and pains within 48 hours. With H5N1, they could be in the intensive care unit of the hospital within days.

You cannot become infected by handling or eating properly cooked chicken or eggs.

In the meantime, the woman’s family members are being monitored as a safety precaution. So far, they haven’t shown any signs of sickness.

Both Kettner and Tetro say that the Canadian case has hit a dead end as the patient passed away. She also contracted the virus on the other side of the world.

“It is the end of the line for those particular viruses in their ability to reproduce and spread,” Kettner said.

Read more about H5N1 on the WHO site here.