Five months after the first Alaskans were sickened by the swine flu virus, state health officials say thousands of people here likely have become ill and they expect to see many more cases.
Meanwhile, all the attention on flu this year is increasing the demand for seasonal flu vaccines and temporary shortages are showing up around the country, including in Alaska, said Laurel Wood, immunization program manager for the state Public Health Division. Some parents are having trouble finding shots for children.
People are also clamoring for vaccinations to protect against the 2009 strain of H1N1, or swine flu. While the first 4,200 doses arrived in Alaska last week, they were earmarked for a group at high risk of being hospitalized, children ages 2 to 4.
More doses of vaccine for both types of flu are on the way, Wood said. More H1N1 vaccine should arrive this week, and the state will continue to get additional shipments to fill the need, she said.
Whether there will be enough seasonal flu vaccine remains to be seen; even in a routine year, it's hard to predict how much will be needed, she said.
"We're not in a crisis situation," Wood said. "It's just that demand is outstripping available supply at the moment, but there's more on the way."
Since May 1, 103 Alaskans have been hospitalized with influenza and five have died -- four from Fairbanks and one from Seward, according to an Oct. 9 situation report from the state Department of Health and Social Services.
The number of people hospitalized spiked the week ending Oct. 3, with 24. So far, almost all of the influenza cases are H1N1, state epidemiologist Joe McLaughlin said.
"It will definitely keep going up. We know that our peak incidence for influenza infection occurs in the winter months," McLaughlin said. For Alaska, the seasonal flu peaks in February; H1N1 might peak earlier, he said.
Many more people have fallen ill but didn't need hospital care.
"The CDC is estimating there have been already millions of cases of H1N1 in the United States," McLaughlin said. "We very likely have seen thousands of cases here in Alaska."
Doctors only have to report cases with positive test results, and many patients don't go to the doctor or are diagnosed without a test, he said.
As long as swine flu vaccine supplies remain tight, the state will continue to target its allocation to priority groups.
The doses of nasal spray and shots expected this week are earmarked for pregnant women; anyone caring for or living with babies under 6 months, who are too young to be immunized; people age 6 months to 24 years; health care workers; and adults age 25 to 64 with chronic health problems. While the elderly usually are at greatest risk from the flu, many people age 65-plus were exposed to a similar virus years ago and likely have some residual immunity.
As to the seasonal flu vaccine, some pediatricians in Anchorage have run out of the shots for children. The municipal health department has doses of nasal mist as well as preservative-free shots for young children, but the mist -- a weakened form of live virus -- isn't right for everyone. For instance, people at high risk of complications from the flu are told not to take the mist. Various pharmacies offer the shots, but often only to people age 12 and up.
Find Lisa Demer online at adn.com/contact/ldemer or call 257-4390.