A Cornwall Crown attorney who returned from Mexico with a mysterious illness is believed to be one of a handful of people in Ontario who may be linked to an outbreak that is confounding health authorities, provincial officials say.
Guy Simard, 47, was airlifted to The Ottawa Hospital in late March and admitted into the intensive care unit, a hospital official said Thursday. Simard spent 11 nights in hospital before being released April 9.
Ontario officials confirm they have been warned to be on the lookout for unusual illnesses in Canadians returning from Mexico.
The outbreak has Canadian public health officials scrambling to discover the nature of the deadly flu-like illness that has already killed 20 people in Mexico and has left that country’s medical authorities without any answers.
According to Dr. Danielle Grondin, the acting assistant deputy minister for infectious diseases, what is known so far of the the mysterious illness — often called severe respiratory illness (SRI) — is that it strikes healthy people aged 25-44 years and quickly worsens. The outbreak is confined largely to the south and central parts of Mexico, and of the 137 people who have been struck by the unknown virus, 20 have died. Very little is known about the virus or how it spreads, but it is being described in Mexican media as SARS-like.
Grondin, however, said that the description is wrong. From what is known by Canadian authorities so far, it does not appear to be a SARS-like outbreak, she said. She hopes that 51 samples from Mexico that are now being tested at the infectious diseases laboratory in Winnipeg will soon provide some important clues.
Grondin said Canadian authorities are doing everything to help Mexico get to the bottom of the outbreak.
As a precaution, public health authorities, family physicians and hospitals across the country have been placed on high alert to look for any unusual flu-like symptoms in patients. The government’s pandemic surveillance alert has been increased to a state of high vigilance. The federal government, however, has not as yet issued a travel ban to Mexico but is warning prospective Canadian travellers to be vigilant and take precautions against flu.
“There is no evidence as of now that the illness in Mexico is an illness like SARS,” Grondin said.
“It is serious in Mexico, but nothing in Canada. At this point, there are no clusters of SRI in Canada. There are no health concerns for Canadians.”
Dr. Arlene King, who leads the Centre for Immunization and Respiratory Infectious Diseases at the Public Health Agency of Canada, said her organization just learned about the severe respiratory outbreak in the “last couple of days.”
“There are pneumonia outbreaks, probably of an unknown origin at this point in time, occurring in Mexico,” King told a news conference Thursday, where she was named the province’s new chief medical officer of health.
“A number of different clusters have occurred over the last month or so … and these have obviously created concern related to their potential to get larger and to spread outside Mexico.”
According to reports, Guy Simard’s illness was considered life-threatening at one point. He was attached to a ventilator and received at least one blood transfusion, according to the Cornwall Standard-Freeholder.
On Thursday, the province’s acting chief medical officer of health, Dr. David Williams, said Simard’s case is one of about 10 being looked at for links with a severe respiratory outbreak in Mexico.
“We haven’t ruled it out and we haven’t ruled it in either. It’s still (under) investigation,” he told reporters Thursday.
“It starts off as a respiratory illness and it just gets worse and worse. It’s quite severe. We’re not talking just a mild issue.”
Grondin told reporters in Ottawa that it is unlikely that the illness of the patient treated at The Ottawa Hospital is related to the Mexican outbreak, but she said the situation is being monitored closely.
Ottawa Hospital spokeswoman Allison Neill said that hospital staff were unaware of the unusual nature of Simard’s illness when he was admitted in late March.
“We would only learn that this week,” she said.
“Even with this patient coming in from Cornwall and us not knowing what was going on … all the proper protection and procedures were in place at that point. Our professionals have no real concerns.”
Simard was released in “good condition” on April 9. He has still not returned to his duties in the Crown attorney’s office. He reportedly may suffer permanent lung damage due to the illness. An e-mail to Simard’s work account was not returned Thursday.
Neill says The Ottawa Hospital hasn’t seen any other patients with similar conditions.
“We’ve not seen any other activity in any other patients or staff,” she said.
Pressed by reporters in Ottawa on why the federal government is allowing Canadians to travel to a country where 20 normally healthy people have died suddenly from an unknown disease, Grondin said it is not up public health authorities to tell Canadians where to travel. She said the information public health authorities have so far doesn’t warrant a travel ban. She those intending to travel to Mexico should make sure they’ve had their flu vaccine and take other precautions, such as washing their hands. They should also see their doctor if they have a cough that also includes sneezing.
But Grondin said the travel advisory could change, depending on the results of the tests being done in Winnipeg.
“At this stage, it is not for us to close borders. We don’t want to generate undue scare,” she said.