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H7N9 bird flu: is Canada ready for a bird flu outbreak?

Bird flu
Chinese health workers collect bags of dead chickens at the Huhuai wholesale agricultural market in Shanghai on April 5. (AFP/Getty Images)

As the world nervously watches the bird flu outbreak unfolding in China, two questions are likely at the top of everyone's minds:

1) Will H7N9 start spreading between humans?

2) Will it come here?

The WHO has confirmed 16 cases so far, including six deaths. They also announced today that any new H7N9 updates will be announced on their Twitter account first. It is important to note, however, that there is still no evidence of human-to-human transmission and the prevailing theory is that people are getting infected by poultry.

But now there are also a few suspected imported cases of H7N9 in Hong Kong and, according to Chinese reports, in Taiwan -- both involving people who have recently visited China. This is not altogether surprising, considering the close ties and proximity between those countries and China.

But could there be imported cases in Canada? It's hard to know but the possibility certainly cannot be ruled out. There is a huge Chinese population in Canada and during the SARS outbreak in 2003, we were among the countries hardest hit -- we were also completely caught off guard by the sudden appearance of a brand new virus (for a refresher, you can read my colleague Amy Dempsey's recent SARS anniversary stories here and here).

So if an H7N9-infected person were to arrive on our shores, is Canada ready to test for it? The Public Health Agency of Canada's National Microbiology Lab says yes. Here's what they told me by email: 

How is the Agency able to detect the H7N9 virus?

The Agency's National Microbiology Laboratory has access to the H7N9 whole genome sequence through the Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data. With this information, the NML has the capability to rapidly detect the H7N9 virus.

Can the provincial laboratories detect the virus?

The NML is working closely with provincial laboratories to ensure they will soon be able to test for the H7N9 virus.

How is the Agency monitoring the situation in China?

An Agency medical expert is based in Beijing, and is liaising with the Chinese infectious disease prevention authorities on this outbreak. The Agency is also continually monitoring information on avian influenza H7N9 in poultry, as well as human cases in China and is working closely with its national and international partners, including the World Health Organization, to track all types of flu activity in Canada and around the world.   

It will be really important for provincial labs to acquire the capacity to test for the new bird flu strain, however -- as of now, any samples from a suspected case in Canada would have to be shipped to Winnipeg for testing and confirmation (although even after the provincial labs acquire the capacity to test, any positive cases would be doubly-confirmed by the Winnipeg lab, at least in the early stages).

A spokesperson with Ontario's public health lab tells me they currently have tests that can pick up Influenza A, which would flag the sample as a suspected H7N9 case. As of yet, however, they do not have specific tests to pick up H7N9 -- they're working on that right now.

Jennifer Yang is the Star’s global health reporter. She previously worked as a general assignment reporter and won a NNA in 2011 for her explanatory piece on the Chilean mining disaster. Follow her on Twitter: @jyangstar


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