The H5N1 strain of influenza, or “bird flu,” is being stopped from crossing the United States (US) border by strict regulation and monitoring. In 1997, when the illness made a first-time transfer from animal to human, the panic over pandemic etched the avian flu into history with the first documented case of mortal infection. H5N1 is a quick-mutating, highly pathogenic, avian strain of influenza. It is both epizootic (spreads quickly among animals), and panzootic (a disease that affects all animals in a geographical area), having adapted itself to numerous species of birds and killing tens of millions to date.
Spread by migrating fowl, the strain is housed and spread by bird saliva and droppings. When the droppings dry, they become ground into dust and inhaled as the means of transfer. Since 2003, around six-hundred human infections from H5N1 viruses have been reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) by countries in Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Near East. An estimated sixty percent of those cases resulted in death.
The numbers continue to mount, as the world saw Canadian Health Minister Rona Ambrose confirm the first death due to the deadly virus in North America on Wednesday. With a case so close to home, US officials are exercising increased vigilance with respect to imported poultry, attempting to ensure that the H5N1 influenza strain is stopped at the border.
Ms. Ambrose gave no details on the individual, who, after returning from a trip to the Chinese capital of Beijing, passed away Friday in a hospital in Edmonton in the western province of Alberta. Before death, it was said that the victim showed symptoms of high fever, headache, and general weakness and discomfort.
During a teleconference with health officials, Ambrose gave information that confirmed, according to lab tests the hospital provided Tuesday, that the victim was infected with the bird flu virus H5N1. She said that Canada had notified China and the WHO of the incident.
According to health officials in Alberta, the victim was first seen showing symptoms of the strain on a flight from Beijing to Vancouver on Dec. 27, aboard Air Canada flight 030. After spending a couple of hours in the Vancouver airport, the passenger then flew to Edmonton on Air Canada flight 244.
A pair of people who traveled with the victim were tracked by officials for 10 days, as well as groups of people who had close contact with the individual on both of the flights. Passengers from those same flights (between Beijing and Edmonton) were also notified of the happening.
The Canadian Health Minister gave assurances during the teleconference that the incident, while unfortunate, was under control. The statement was made that every measure possible was being taken to prevent any similar incidents from happening among those who were present or associated. “This is an isolated case,” she said. “The risk of getting H5N1 is very low. This is not the regular seasonal flu.”
As of yet, there is no data or evidence supporting that the virus can spread easily between people. Although H5N1 has killed more than 300 people worldwide since 2003, according to official data, smaller numbers like that only make it clear that the strain has a while to go before mutating into something truly horrific.
The best way to prevent infection is to avoid contact with sick or deceased poultry (chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, etc).
The US Government diligently controls which domestic and imported food products cross the border. They ban poultry, as well as poultry products imported from countries whose livestock are infected by H5N1, completely.
By Julio Miranda