Bird flu has killed a Canadian who has recently return from China. The flu strain, known as H5N1 is extremely dangerous and has killed 60 percent of those infected. Worldwide last year there were only 38 cases, but the lethality of the virus is such that 24 deaths were the result. In the last ten years, there have been 650 cases and almost 400 deaths. Because the majority of these cases were in China, Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan and Vietnam there is also a possibility of underreporting due to variations in the quality of health monitoring.
Alberta health authorities and the Canadian Health Minister, Rona Ambrose, advise avoiding contact with birds in China. However, this is obviously impossible for millions of Chinese, not to mention people are constantly travelling together in jet aircraft. This means there is serious question over whether there is a need for wider vaccination against this most dangerous strain of flu.
For the moment, H5N1 is not easily passed between humans. Indeed, the Alberta case is considered “unprecedented;” but if there is a mutation and this situation changes, mass vaccination, travel restrictions and significant costs in money and lives may be a reality. However, H5N1 vaccines have been developed, approved and stockpiled; although in this case they provided no protection. The family of the dead traveller is being monitored and has been offered Tamiflu as a potential protection. So far, they show no signs of illness.
H5N1 causes infection deep in the lungs and deaths are normally associated with pneumonia, which is primarily an inflammation of the alveoli of the lung to the point where respiration can fail.
China has been vaccinating their own chickens against this strain of bird flu, and in Canada it is very much an isolated case to find it in humans. However it is concerning that another strain of flu, H1N1, or swine flu, has killed ten people in Alberta this year.
Flu health concerns remain high, especially in China; another strain, H7N9, has been the cause of illness in the elderly. However, recently a case appeared where a 31-year-old man from Guangdong Province, who did not have contact with poultry, became ill with the flu strain. The Chinese authorities took this case extremely seriously and everyone who came into contact with the man was tested. When a woman and her daughter were also found to have been in contact with him, and the woman displayed symptoms of a sore throat, they were both immediately hospitalized.
Billions of dollars has been invested getting ready for a potential H5N1 pandemic, it remains one of the most likely candidates for such an event. Now it may be necessary to add H7N9 to the list and spend billions more.
The bird flu strain H5N1 has never remained permanently present in Canada, and this was the first reported death; although cases have been reported in imported birds as far back as 1968. However, Alberta’s preparedness may be questionable, as their web site states there is currently no vaccine against H5N1 bird flu, despite other sources suggesting that the U.S. approved a vaccine in 2007 by Sanofi Pasteur. Reports also state the European community approved a vaccine in 2008 from GlaxoSmithKline called Pandemrix.
By Andrew Willig