With the flu spreading in Alaska, officials urge residents to get vaccinated

Casey Grove

While one flu scare was put to rest Thursday when state officials said a young adult patient hospitalized in Anchorage did not die from the disease as previously suspected, they said influenza remains a serious public health concern and urged Alaskans to get vaccinated.

Officials from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services say the strain they're seeing the most so far in Alaska this year is H1N1, commonly called swine flu. This year's flu vaccine includes that strain and others in an inert form to stimulate a person's immune system so it responds quickly and aggressively if it comes in contact with the real thing.

According to the state health department, there have been 23 confirmed cases reported in Alaska so far this flu season. Of those, 18 were in Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. Alaska had more confirmed cases of flu by this time last year, as is typical, DHSS said.

But not all adult flu cases are reported to the state. A person with the flu might not seek medical care, for example, and health-care providers are not required to report flu cases or flu-related deaths.

The state does not investigate every case of the flu, but epidemiologists look for trends to ensure there is not "something out of ordinary," said Michael Cooper, the state's infectious disease program manager.

"It's the start of flu season. It's out there," Cooper said. "Not a lot of people are coming in for care, but unfortunately a couple people got sicker and had to go to the hospital. It's preliminary, but it doesn't look like there's anything unusual."

"Back in 2009, when H1N1 was new, there was good reason to get excited because nobody knew if this was a new, novel version of flu like in 1918," Cooper said, referring to the pandemic that killed tens of millions of people worldwide. "What has turned out is it's more like the seasonal flu."

The Alaska Native Medical Center admitted several patients with flu-like symptoms in the past week or so, including the person who died Tuesday night and others considered "seriously ill," hospital spokeswoman Fiona Brosnan said. The hospital is not allowed to release many details about the death due to medical privacy laws, she said.

Early lab tests from samples from the young adult patient raised the suspicion of influenza, but further testing of samples sent to the state's virology lab in Fairbanks showed Thursday that the patient did not have the flu, DHSS spokesman Greg Wilkinson said in an email late Thursday.

The rapid tests performed after the person died, designed to get a quick reading, are not always accurate and give false positive or false negative results at times, Wilkinson said.

"If a person has flu symptoms, we always tell them to get confirmation with a lab test," he said.

It was the confirmation test from the lab in Fairbanks that showed the young adult did not die from flu. State officials are not saying what the person in fact died from, if they know.

"The Department of Health and Social Services continues to recommend flu vaccine as the best possible preventive measure against the flu, in addition to following good hand hygiene and covering your cough practices," Wilkinson said.

Anywhere from 3,000 to 49,000 people with the flu die each year in the United States, according to estimates by the Centers for Disease Control. There have been no confirmed flu-related deaths reported to the state this year, DHSS said.

Patients younger than 6 months or older than 65 years and those with compromised immune systems are at the greatest risk, Cooper said.

Reach Casey Grove at casey.grove@adn.com or 257-4343. Twitter updates: twitter.com/kcgrove.