01/08/2014 07:53 EST | Updated 03/10/2014 05:59 EDT

H5N1 Bird Flu: First Canadian Victim Was At Vancouver Airport

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VICTORIA - British Columbia's provincial health officer says the Alberta resident who died of bird flu was at Vancouver International Airport for several hours last month, but the chances of spreading the H5N1 virus to flight passengers or airport visitors are rare.

Dr. Perry Kendall said Wednesday the Albertan spent more than two hours at the airport on Dec. 27 and was waiting for a connection to Edmonton after a flight from Beijing.

He said there is minimal risk to people aboard the Beijing-to-Vancouver flight or others in the airport waiting area, and no other cases of H5N1 have since been reported in B.C.

"The average incubation period for H5N1 infection is between three and four days, so anyone who might have been exposed to this patient would, by now, have developed recognizable signs and symptoms," said Kendall at a news conference in Victoria.

"The vast majority of human cases of H5N1 have been acquired from infected poultry and is therefore extremely unlikely that any passengers or casual airport contacts of this case would have been put at risk."

Kendall said British Columbians travelling to China should avoid live chickens, birds and poultry markets, and they should ensure any of the bird meat they eat is thoroughly cooked.

Federal public health officials said the bird-flu death is the first such case in North America.

Health Minister Rona Ambrose also said the death was isolated, and the risk to the public is small.

Health officials said the victim, who they did not identify, travelled to China last month and was hospitalized Jan. 1 in Edmonton but died two days later.

Symptoms of H5N1 include a fever and cough, acute respiratory distress, shortness of breath and difficulty breathing, abdominal pain and diarrhea.

Since late 2003, just under 650 people from 15 countries — now 16 including Canada — are known to have contracted the flu strain, which rarely hits humans.

Kendall said death occurs in about 60 per cent of the bird-flu cases.

But while Kendall said the chances of contracting the bird flu are rare, the odds of being hit with the H1N1 influenza flu are greater, with B.C. currently in the middle of a moderate-to-severe outbreak.

"In a moderate-to-severe influenza year in B.C., we could expect a couple thousand hospitalizations over the influenza period and we could expect about 500 deaths attributed to influenza," he said.

Kendall said there are two confirmed H1N1 deaths this flu season, which runs from December to April, and one suspicious, but unconfirmed, flu death.

The concern about this season's H1N1 flu is that it appears to be striking younger and healthier people, he said.

The virus that has claimed the lives of six people in Saskatchewan and 10 people in Alberta is also making its presence felt in southwestern B.C.

Kendall said the province this year bought 1.4 million flu-shot doses, which protect against H1N1.

He said it appears British Columbians are turning to the shots in record numbers, and some areas are experiencing temporary shortages of the flu vaccines, but efforts are being made to bring in more doses.

"We're actively looking to see who has what and can we move it around," he said.

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