Only one day after the first reported death from H1N1 in BC came from the Okanagan, it was announced another person had died in Alberta, but this time from the far more critical H5N1 bird flu virus. The woman had returned to Edmonton via Vancouver from Beijing, on December 27, 2013.
The BC Ministry of Health and Provincial Health Officer Dr. Perry Kendall hoped to calm the public's fears by holding a press conference from Vancouver Wednesday afternoon.
“I would like to assure British Columbians that we have done extensive risk assessment with Health Canada and Alberta health officials and we see very minimal risk to anyone who may have been exposed to this individual on either the flight or in the Vancouver airport. So I want to reassure British Columbians that they can rest easy,” says Dr. Kendall.
Shortly after her arrival in Canada symptoms began, and by Jan 3, 2014 she succumbed to the virus.
It was confirmed this morning that the strain she died from was in indeed the H5N1 bird flu, the first ever confirmed case in North America.
This particular strain of influenza has a mortality rate of 60 per cent. The typical influenza virus affects 10-20 per cent of the Canadian population ever year, with the vast majority completely recovering.
The most important fact is that the H5N1 Bird Flu does not usually pass from human to human. This means anyone on the flight with the woman or anyone who might have come in contact with her at YVR, are safe.
In fact human to human transmission is incredibly rare. Dr. Kendall says that of the 600 world wide confirmed cases found in 15 countries, there have only beentwo to three cases from human to human transfer. Of those, all were with close family contacts
“The vast majority of confirmed human H5N1 cases have been acquired from affected poultry, it is therefore extremely unlikely that any airport passengers or casual contacts of this case would have been put at any risk,” said Dr. Kendall.
In general the disease comes directly and only from tainted poultry and therefore anyone traveling to China is urged to stay away from poultry markets or live chicken and birds, and guarantee all poultry consumed is thoroughly cooked.
Health officials say Canadians can rest easy as it has now been 12 days since she entered the country and anyone that might have been affected would have long since been showing symptoms.
Although we seem safe in Canada from getting the deadly H5N1 flu, the normal season flu and H1N1 are causing problems for some British Columbians.
“In a typical influenza year in BC we can expect a couple thousand hospitalizations and 500 deaths. What we have currently seen is maybe 100 admissions to ICU and so far 2 confirmed and one possible death,” explained Dr. Kendall.
“We are having a moderate to severe influenza season in BC. The number of people consulting doctors or being hospitalized is not that excessive.”
However what is causing some concerns and pushing many to run for the flu shot is the fact much younger people than typical are getting very sick and being hospitalized.
“What we are seeing from Saskatchewan, Alberta and here is that it is the age group 20-69 who are predominantly being affected with pneumonia or other illness, or among the people who are unfortunately dying,” explains Dr. Kendall.
“We've come to expect 85-year-olds to die, but when a 30-year-old, or a 55-year-old or even a 60-year-old dies of a flu caused infection, that is unusual and it has more of a family and more a societal impact.”
Because of BC's first H1N1 flu deaths and others across Canada the push to get everyone to take their flu shot is on, which is leaving some pharmacies empty handed.
“We are actively looking to see who has lots and what can move around. Temporary shortages do occur and Interior Health hopes shortages will be temporary and they will be reallocating supplies to get them out to people who have run out,” says Dr. Kendall.
He argues that they've order more flu shots this year than ever before, 1.4 million, which is ample supply for what they could have predicted when they ordered it last year.
“We order our vaccine back in February based on our best estimates of how much we can get into peoples' arm,” explains Dr. Kendall. “The demand has been high this year...we have supplies currently available, but it is conceivable that if the demand remains high we will use up all of those 1.4 million doses.”
“It is not a vaccine shortage, it is an unusually high demand,” he adds. “Last year 90,000 doses were returned to us even though we purchased significantly less.
But not to worry, Dr. Kendall says even if BC were to completely run out there are other resources we can pull from.
“Trying to predict demand 10-months prior is tricky, and we could well run out if more people come forward, however we have met nationally to see if there are additional supplies that could be purchased and there are some limited amounts that we could get if needed.”
Although your local pharmacy maybe out today of the vaccine, doctors are still urging you to call around and get vaccinated.
“Although the current influenza vaccine will not protect against the H5N1, public health officials still remind members of the public that the current H1N1 virus still is the predominant cause of influenza illness in BC right now and the vaccine will prevent it,” says Dr. Kendall.