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H5N1 victim was nurse from Red Deer Hospital, born in China

A colourized transmission electron micrograph of Avian influenza. H5N1 viruses appear gold. - Public domain
A colourized transmission electron micrograph of Avian influenza. H5N1 viruses appear gold.
— image credit: Public domain

North America's first victim of H5N1 has been identified as an Alberta woman in her 20s, who was a health-care worker (a registered nurse) at Red Deer Hospital.

The woman died on Jan. 3, 2014. She had returned to Canada after flying from Beijing, China, connecting in Vancouver at YVR International Airport on Dec. 27, 2013, and then landing in Edmonton. Reports say she first became ill on the flight home and went to the hospital the next day for a fever and headache. She re-entered the hospital on January 1 and died two days later.

On Friday, the woman's family released a statement and said she had grown up in China and moved to Canada to become a nurse. She graduated with her degree in 2010. (Source: Red Deer Advocate).

"This was her dream and she studied and worked extremely hard to achieve this... 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."

Her name has not yet been released.

More from the family's statement:

"Our beloved daughter and wife was a hard-working, independent young woman," starts the statement.

"She married her husband a year and a half ago; and together they created a happy life in Red Deer. She worked hard and had saved for a vacation, which she took in December 2013 with her mother. Together, they travelled on a trip which would sadly turn out to be her last," it reads.

"We are devastated by her death, and we request time to grieve in privacy."

The World Health Organization (WHO) is currently investigating the woman's death and illness, and her travel route.

"At the moment, we know that the woman didn't visit a poultry farm or a poultry market, but that does not necessarily mean (that) exposure was excluded," said Dr. Wenqing Zhang of the WHO's influenza program (CBC News).

On Tuesday, when the woman's death was announced, Canadian health officials said there was no need for the general public to worry about the woman's illness affecting (or infecting) them, as there's no evidence that H5N1 (also known as bird flu) can pass from person-to-person.

"From what we know about H5N1, human-to-human transmission is very rare and, if it occurs, is confined to close family contacts," said Dr. Perry Kendall in the government's official statement. "It is, therefore, extremely unlikely that any passengers or casual contacts would have been at risk.

"As always, travellers who develop new respiratory symptoms accompanied by breathing difficulty or other signs of worsening within two weeks of their return should consult a physician with information about their travel history.

"Most respiratory illness at this time of year, including among returning travellers, will be due to common viral illness such as seasonal influenza, including the H1N1 virus."

The World Health Organization has confirmed 658 human cases of H5N1 infection, in 15 countries, from 2003 to 2013.

Of those cases, there have been 384 deaths, a fatality rate of nearly 60 per cent.

H5N1 affects a person's lower deep respiratory tract. Symptoms include a fever and cough, acute respiratory distress, shortness of breath and difficulty breathing, abdominal pain, and diarrhea.

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