H5N1’s journey to North America

Post written by Katie Baird and Amy Cleveland

The death of a young Albertan woman  from H5N1 flu on Jan. 3 has left many Canadians with questions about this virus.

The woman, who was in her 20s and a health care worker at Red Deer Hospital, is believed to have contracted the virus during a trip to China. She died several days after her return to Red Deer.

The CBC reports that with no further cases reported in Canada, the window for transmission of the virus is closing.

What is H5N1?

H5N1 is a relatively new strain of avian flu, meaning it usually infects birds. Cases of human infection with the avian flu are rare, but can be fatal. The virus does not easily spread from person to person.

The World Health Organization’s most recent numbers, from October of last year, show that worldwide, 380 fatalities have occurred following 641 confirmed H5N1 infections. The WHO is monitoring the virus closely for signs of an epidemic.

Symptoms include:

  • abdominal pain
  •  chest pain
  •  diarrhea
  •  fever
  • malaise
  •  cough
  • sore throat
  •  muscle aches

These symptoms can advance quickly to severe respiratory illness and neurological changes.

There is currently no vaccine available for H5N1 and no known cure, but WHO is still recommending a course of treatment for all cases of H5N1. The severity of symptoms can be reduced through the use of an antiviral called Oseltamivir.

Where did it come from?

Click through this timeline for a year-by-year look at the origins and spread of H5N1


How widespread is the virus?

Mouse over the interactive map below to explore human H5N1 flu cases worldwide:

More quick facts about H5N1:

  • the virus is difficult to transmit person-to-person
  • the mortality rate in people is 60 per cent
  • the majority of cases occur through contact with infected live or dead birds
  • so far there have been no confirmed cases of H5N1 in Canadian birds
  • a study published in 2007 examining 54 cases in Indonesia found that 76 per cent of them were associated with poultry. The origin of the remaining 24 per cent is unknown (Journal of Infectious Diseases)

What officials are saying:

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