First Case of Human Bird Flu in North America Confirmed, a Second Possible

January 27, 2015 Updated: January 27, 2015

A woman who recently traveled to China has tested positive for H7N9 avian influenza, Canadian officials confirmed Monday.

This is the first documented case of bird flu infection of a human in North America.

The individual returned to British Columbia, Canada, on Jan. 21, and was not symptomatic when traveling. She became sick after returning home and did not require hospitalization, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. The Agency believes it was highly likely the individual was infected in China.

The woman was traveling with her husband, who is also sick with influenza-like illness, and its believed that he too is affected, but test results are still pending, according to a deputy British Columbia health officer who spoke to the Canadian Press newswire.

According to the World Health Organization, bird flu infections were first discovered in humans in March 2013 in China, including in a pigeon market in Shanghai. By May of 2013, WHO confirmed 131 cases and 32 deaths in China.

The disease transmission appeared to pick up speed in Southeast China in early 2014, leading to widespread panic in China, according to Epoch Times reporting that tapped Chinese sources. Around that time, China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention (China CDC) was reporting five to seven cases of H7N9 per day. 

“Everyone is now panicking over the bird flu,” said Shen Jianmin, a resident in Zhejiang, in February 2014. “Worried about a deadly influenza pandemic, people wear masks, and don’t eat poultry or meat.”

In China, as with a number of topics deemed sensitive by the ruling regime, the facts as well as news reporting about the influenza virus have been, and continue to be, tightly controlled by the government. 

China received a lot of international scrutiny over a lack of transparency in disease reporting during the 2003 outbreaks of the H5N1 bird flu and SARS

A WHO report in early 2014 on the human influenza strain compared the potential of the H7N9 virus’ global spread to the 2003 global outbreaks of SARS and H5N1, the latter being the strain that infects birds with the influenza disease.

The H5N1 strain lead to widespread culling of poultry in farms around the world, including two farms in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley in December 2014. 

Currently, H7N9 infections are fairly rare outside China. Cases of infected humans who travelled from China have been reported in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Malaysia.

It wasn’t until early January of 2014 that Chinese authorities acknowledged that the bird flu could transmit from human to human. Previously the avian influenza virus had been only detected in birds.

People who contract the disease become severely ill, and display fever, cough, and shortness of breath. The disease is highly pathogenic. Most people who have contracted it have reported exposure to live poultry or other potentially contaminated environments, included markets where birds are sold, according to the WHO.

Canadian officials cautioned that the risk to the public of getting sick is very low, as the disease does not transmit easy from person to person. They also made clear that there is no risk of contracting the disease from eating well-cooked poultry. Canada does not import raw poultry or poultry products from China.