01/10/2014 11:28 EST | Updated 03/12/2014 05:59 EDT

H5N1 Flu Virus: First Victim In North America Was A Nurse

RED DEER, Alta. - The first person to die of avian flu in North America was a registered nurse in a central Alberta hospital.

The woman's family said in a statement Friday that she grew up in China and moved to Alberta on her own to studying nursing. She worked at the Red Deer Regional Hospital.

"This was her dream and she studied and worked extremely hard to achieve this," the statement said.

"She wanted to help people. She also wanted a career that would allow her to provide for her family and to support those she loved."

The woman's named has not been released. The family said they are devastated and asked media to respect their privacy.

The World Health Organization has said she was in her late 20s.

"She was a uniquely independent and determined young woman," said the statement.

"She was an energetic woman, who her co-workers have described as the bright light in the room. She was driven, passionate about her work and most of all her family."

Relatives said she had been married for 1 1/2 years and had built a happy life with her husband in Red Deer.

She had saved for a vacation to her homeland and made the trip with her mother in December.

"Together they travelled on a trip, which would sadly turn out to be her last."

Health officials believe the woman contracted the H5N1 virus while she was in China, where she had spent most of the month of December in Beijing.

They have said she became ill while flying home on Dec. 27. She went to hospital with a fever and headache the next day but was sent home after being examined. She returned to hospital on New Year's Day, when the illness progressed, and died two days later.

News of the case has garnered international attention, but Canadian health officials have reassured the public that the strain of flu, highly infectious among birds, rarely infects humans.

The WHO is investigating the death because initial reports have suggested the woman's symptoms were not entirely typical of H5N1 infections. Alberta's chief medical health office has said the woman had neurological symptoms that made doctors suspect she had encephalitis, or a brain infection.

It's not a common symptom of flu but has been reported in some H5N1 cases.

It's not known if an autopsy has been done. Family members said in the statement that they are co-operating with health authorities, but gave no further details.

Also on HuffPost

Photo gallery 21 Facts About The Flu See Gallery