Flu on uptick in Alaska; two deaths reported

Tegan Hanlon

Two adult Alaskans died from the flu in the past week, while cases of the seasonal disease skyrocketed in the state throughout December.

"We're definitely right in the thick of flu season," said Dr. Brian Yablon, a state epidemiologist with the Department of Health and Social Services.

The deaths mark the first reported influenza fatalities for the 2013-2014 flu season in Alaska, according to the department. But this doesn't mean the flu hasn't killed before. New regulations took effect Dec. 29 and mandated that health care facilities start routinely reporting adult flu deaths to the state. Before, it had only tracked deaths among children.

"People think, 'Oh it's just the flu,' " Yablon said. "But flu actually is a common cause of death every winter. It's a good thing to be able to track."

Yablon said he could not disclose where the Alaskans died, their ages or where they were from. The state has not been notified of any children who died from the flu this season, he said.

Flu cases jumped from only two reported in Alaska in September to more than 220 cases confirmed between Dec. 1 and Dec. 28.

The deadly H1N1, or the so-called swine flu, triggered more than 90 percent of the 290 laboratory-confirmed flu cases in Alaska since September. It's the flu strain behind the worldwide pandemic in 2009 that swept across more than 209 countries and killed more than 14,140 people.

Right before Christmas, the Centers for Disease Control issued a health advisory for H1N1 after receiving reports of deaths, hospitalizations and intensive-care-unit admissions among young and middle-aged adults infected with the flu strain across the country.

Yablon said a lab test confirmed that one of the adult flu deaths in Alaska was caused by H1N1. The other tested positive for the flu under a rapid test, designed for quick reading. Yablon said it's probable the person had the flu but the state is awaiting confirmation from a lab test.

"Most of the positive tests are true influenza," Yablon said. "There can be false positives but in the middle of flu season, it's likely to be flu."

Symptoms of H1N1 are similar to any other flu strain -- cough, runny or stuffy nose, fever, headaches, fatigue and chills. Some people may vomit or have diarrhea, according to the CDC.

"The classic flu symptoms are all there," Yablon said. "It's really impossible to say just based on your symptoms what strain of flu you have."

Unlike in 2009, the H1N1 strain is part of this year's vaccination, so people can protect themselves against the virus, said Gerri Yett, the immunization program manager for the Department of Health and Social Services.

"There's an ample supply of vaccine available still," she said

CDC recommends the flu vaccine for everyone 6 months and older. Alaska vaccinated 39.7 percent of residents older than 6 months during the 2012-13 flu season, the most current statistics available.

"We're in the middle of flu season," Yablon said. "Ideally you already would have been vaccinated but there's still time."

It typically takes about two weeks for the vaccination to take effect, he said.

Where to get a flu shot in Anchorage:

Children's Hospital at Providence Alaska Medical Center

When: 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday, walk-in clinic

Where: 3340 Providence Drive, Suite 351

Cost: Free for children under 19 who are Medicaid eligible, uninsured, underinsured or American Indian or Alaska Native

Anchorage Health Department

When: Clinic open Monday to Friday, check muni.org for daily hours

Where: 825 L St., first floor

Cost: Administrative fee waived through March, free for qualifying Alaskans

Commercially provided at Walgreens, Carrs and Fred Meyer pharmacies.

To find vaccine centers near you: healthmap.org