A person in Canada has died from H5N1 bird flu, in the first known case of the virus hitting North America.
The Canadian health ministry said the victim started feeling ill on a flight returning from China. He or she had only visited Beijing while in the Far East – making it also the first known case of the disease circulating in the Chinese capital.
Officials said the victim had not travelled to any farms or markets with live poultry. They said they were in the process of contacting others who had come over from China on the same flight.
Health minister Rona Ambrose nonetheless insisted the case was an isolated one with a low risk to the general public. The victim’s family and two travelling companions were being medicated and under observation, but had reported no signs of illness.
“The risk of H5N1 to Canadians is very low,” she said. “There is no evidence of sustained human-to-human transmission.”
The Canadian health authority said it would not be releasing the age, sex or occupation of the person who died.
The victim, from Alberta, had returned from Beijing with Air Canada on 27 December. He or she then transferred from Vancouver to Edmonton and, after complaining of a headache and fever, was admitted to hospital on 1 January. The patient died two days later.
Ms Ambrose said officials were working closely with their counterparts in China on the case. Dr Gregory Taylor said: “This is the first evidence of this particular virus circulating in Beijing. Chinese authorities are going to be very interested. We've contacted them already.”
The World Health Organisation says that as of mid-December, there had been 648 laboratory-confirmed human cases of H5N1 flu, reported mostly in Asia. Of that total, 384 infections have been fatal.
The virus remains difficult for humans to catch, with most cases stemming from close contact with live poultry markets, but scientists are concerned about the risk of it mutating and spreading between humans.
Dr Theresa Tam of Health Canada sought to reassure the public, saying: “This is not a disease that's transmitted between humans so unless you were in the infected in the area and were in contact with an infected bird you are not going to get this illness.”