A woman from Canada became the first person in North America to die from the H5N1 bird flu, the World Health Organization told CTV News on Wednesday.
The H5N1 bird flu has been examined by scientists for the past 15 years, as it has become endemic in birds in China and elsewhere in Asia. Most humans become infected with the flu after close contact with live birds, either on farms or in live animal markets.
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The infected woman, an Alberta resident who recently traveled to China, died Jan. 3 after she returned to Canada, CBC News reported.
The unidentified woman, who was in her 20s, spent several weeks in China, mostly in Beijing, and became ill on her flight back home on Dec. 27. The woman checked herself into the hospital on Dec. 28 after suffering from headaches and malaise, symptoms of the H1N1 virus.
Health officials said that the woman returned to the hospital on New Year's Day with more severe symptoms.
Dr. Nikki Shindo, a medical officer with the World Health Organization, told CTV News that human-to-human transmission of H5N1 is rare and usually the result of "close, unprotected, prolonged contact with a symptomatic patient."
Andrew Potter, a microbiologist and director of the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, told CBC News an investigation is taking place, retracing the infected woman's steps in China.
"If you were to ask me what was I doing three, four weeks ago, I would have a very tough time telling you and I'm alive," Potter said. "Trying to trace it for somebody who is deceased is a very difficult procedure. The fact that it was in another country makes it even more so."
Potter said that the patient's health, immunity, interactions with chickens, migratory birds or their droppings are part of the investigation, as well as the relatives who came in contact with her.
The woman’s family is being monitored as a precaution and have been offered Tamiflu, an antiviral medication used for severe flu treatment that can help prevent infection.
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