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Has flu season arrived in Alaska?

Suzanna Caldwell
File photo

Ask pediatrician Rosalyn Singleton about the flu in Alaska right now and she'll tell you that it's starting to rumble. Visiting with other doctors at the All Alaska Pediatric Symposium in Girdwood this past weekend, she kept hearing from more and more physicians about influenza cases cropping up across the state.

A few regions across the state are seeing a spike in reported flu cases, indicating that the start of Alaska's flu season could be just around the corner -- or perhaps already upon us. During the final week of October, 26 cases of influenza A and B were reported in three regions, according to the Alaska Division of Epidemiology. By comparison, the first three weeks of October averaged about eight cases each.

State nurse epidemiologist Donna Fearey said flu season has now moved from “sporadic” activity to “local” -- terms used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to indicate the severity of a flu outbreak. Local means more cases are reported in a specific area and can eventually move on to region or become widespread, depending on how many infections are reported.

The Anchorage-Mat-Su area, along with state's northern and southwest regions, have so far racked up the most reported cases.

Eileen Scott, executive director of Iliuliuk Family and Health Services in Unalaska, said there was a strange spike of influenza cases in September, with 19 infections in the island community of about 4,000.

“We've never seen it that early,” she said. Generally, flu season hits the region in January, when Unalaska's population doubles from the influx of crab fishermen, made famous by the reality TV show “Deadliest Catch.” Since the early spike in sickness, Scott said the clinic -- the island's primary-care provider -- has administered 663 flu vaccines.

In Anchorage, the city reports 567 vaccines have been administered at the public health clinic since September.

Singleton is keeping a keen eye on the flu as part of work with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium's immunization program. While she didn't have specific numbers, she said the ANTHC immunization program has administered more flu shots by this time of year than it ever has before. At last month's Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Anchorage, 477 doses alone were administered during the event's health fair.

Singleton said the reason for the increase in vaccinations is three-fold: An early supply of vaccinations available to the state, better accessibility, and a steady trickle of flu cases over the summer, creating more awareness for the vaccine.

While the flu is generally seen in Alaska year-round thanks to tourists visiting the state, the new uptick could mean the start of flu season in Alaska. “We definitely know it's circulating now, but it's been trickling all summer,” Fearey said.

Flu season usually has a peak, although when it starts is always a bit of a question mark, she added. The previous season started late, in March of this year. Before that, it started in December 2011. The current cases could be a mix of good reporting and more people visiting doctors.

Avoiding the flu

Health-care providers encourage Alaskans to take advantage of flu shots. Fearey noted that it takes weeks for the vaccine to become effective.

Influenza A and B are two different strains that can be tested for and are monitored by the state. However, Fearey said it's hard to distinguish the two strains outside of a laboratory setting.

While both the flu and common colds are viruses, the flu often has a quicker, more severe onset. Symptoms include fever, cough, body aches and extreme fatigue. While colds generally clear up, the flu can develop into respiratory complications like pneumonia.

If it is indeed the start of flu season, and you do contract the flu, Fearey said to stay home, cover your cough and make sure wash your hands.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com