North America's first death from the H5N1 virus, also known as avian or bird flu, was reported in Alberta today, contracted by a victim who had just returned from China. While officials have been quick to reassure Canadians that this was an isolated incident and not related to the seasonal flu, this potentially fatal illness has many wondering about the symptoms of this influenza.
Most avian flu viruses do not infect humans, but some, like the highly pathogenic H5N1, can cause severe infections, according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
When the H5N1 strain of bird flu appears in humans, it mimics a severe case of the flu, like H1N1 (swine flu). Flu.gov, the U.S. site for flu information, notes that symptoms of H5N1 in humans include:
- Fever and cough
- Acute respiratory distress
- Shortness of breath/difficulty breathing
- Abdominal pain
Symptoms usually appear within two to five days of infection, according to the Mayo Clinic. Runny nose, muscle aches, sore throat and general malaise may also be symptoms.
The diagnosis of H5N1 based on symptoms alone is difficult because they are so similar to other flu strains; laboratory testing is required to confirm infection, according to the the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
The bird flu is generally spread to people through direct contact with infected birds or poultry livestock. The H5N1 virus can live in the environment for extended periods, but cannot be contracted by eating properly handled, cooked poultry or eggs, and thus far has not shown any sign of spreading easily from person to person, though that is always a likelihood, warns the CDC. As the Lung Association notes, there has been limited transmission in the case of long-term contact with sick relatives.
Complications from the avian flu include a range of severe illnesses, including:
- Respiratory failure
- Altered mental state
- Failure of multiple organs (e.g. kidney failure)
If you suspect you may be infected with H5N1, seek medical help immediately. The CDC suggests wearing a mask and letting your health professional know about any places you may have travelled recently.
Cases of H5N1 infected poultry stock have thus far only been found in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Middle East, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. And though transmission to humans is rare, it has occurred in at least 600 cases since 2003, resulting from people handling sick or dead birds infected with the virus, or being in their environments.