Swine flu suspected in Alaska child's death

FAIRBANKS BOY: The 10-year-old was sent home from school Thursday.

September 5, 2009 

A 10-year-old Fairbanks boy died in Anchorage Friday night from a suspected case of H1N1, or swine flu, state health officials said.

The boy is the third Alaskan, and the first school-aged child, to die of what appears to be swine flu.

The nurse at Hunter Elementary School in Fairbanks sent the child home from school around noon on Thursday with symptoms of the flu, mainly coughing and chest pain, said Clay Butcher, spokesman for the state health department. The boy was admitted to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital early Friday but did not respond well to treatment, state officials said.

The boy was medevacked to Providence Alaska Medical Center. Doctors pronounced the child dead at about 10:30 p.m. Friday, officials said.

An infant who had additional medical problems died Wednesday in Anchorage from complications possibly related to swine flu. That case is still under investigation. A Fairbanks woman who died July 16 in Washington state counted as Alaska's first death. The woman had underlying health problems.

State health officials were taken aback by how rapidly the disease took the life of the Fairbanks boy and were trying to gather more information. Officials didn't release the child's name. They said they didn't have information on any underlying health conditions he might have had.

"We have talked to people at the Centers for Disease Control, a flu expert there, just today, who said this is an extremely rapid downhill course," said Beth Funk, medical epidemiologist with the state Division of Public Health. But it wasn't unheard-of, she was told.

Secondary bacterial infections can creep in when the influenza virus damages the lining along the throat, the bronchial tree and the lungs, weakening the immune system, Funk said, relaying what the CDC expert said. Those bacterial infections then can kill, though no one yet knows if that's what happened to the boy.

"I know that people are going to be very, very concerned, and we are as well," Funk said. "There is a tendency to react and do things differently. However, we really are not recommending anything different than we have been."

The major public health push is to prevent the virus from spreading, she said.

Health officials recommend that schools:

• Emphasize that students and staff stay home if they are sick.

• Separate ill students and staff from those who are healthy until the sick ones can go home.

• Encourage hand washing and coughing or sneezing into a sleeve or a tissue. Hand sanitizers are also good.

• Encourage routine cleaning of hard surfaces that are frequently touched.

• Encourage people with other health issues to get early medical treatment.

Everyone involved took the boy's illness seriously and got him help quickly, Funk said.

"From the school, through the family, through the providers who were taking care of this child who died last night, they did all of the right things," Funk said. Among other things, the boy received antiviral medication, she said.

A vaccine to control H1N1 is being produced. The first doses are expected to arrive in Alaska by mid-October. The vaccine will go initially to high-priority groups; public health officials are still working out who that will be.

There's no indication that swine flu is especially dangerous but it is expected to infect more people than normally are infected by seasonal flu.

Symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue. Some people also have reported diarrhea and vomiting.

Across Alaska, there were 460 confirmed cases of H1N1 as of Wednesday. With so many cases, officials now are only testing the most seriously ill people; those with mild symptoms aren't being tested and their cases aren't showing up in the official count.

School officials around the state say they've been vigilant about swine flu. When children or staff members become ill, they are supposed to stay home until they've been fever-free for 24 hours.

"I would say by now we probably have had some cases in every single school but we don't know how many because sometimes parents just keep their children home," said Anchorage School District Superintendent Carol Comeau. "Sometimes parents call and say that they think their children have H1N1. Others call with a specific diagnosis."

When schools reopen in Fairbanks on Tuesday after the Labor Day holiday, counselors will be ready to help anyone grieving the child's death at Hunter Elementary, said Bill Bailey, spokesman for the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District.

"Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family of the student," Fairbanks North Star Borough Superintendent Nancy Wagner said in a written statement. "This is truly a tragic incident and a tragic day for one of our families."

Find Lisa Demer online at adn.com/contact/ldemer or call 257-4390.

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