It's about the last thing you want from an Alaska summer: to be laid up sick and stuck indoors, coughing, sore and feverish. But that's the reality for some Alaskans thanks to an unusual outbreak of summertime influenza that may have arrived with the tourists and seasonal workers.
As a result, state health experts issued an advisory alert on Tuesday recommending that health care providers keep the potentially deadly illness on their radar. They're also suggesting that people get vaccinated while they can. This season's stock of flu vaccines is set to expire June 30, giving people just two weeks to get vaccinated. The next batch won't be available until sometime in the fall, he said.
The unusual outbreak is nowhere close to the numbers seen during the height of the flu season in the dead of winter. The busiest month of the winter, December, saw 562 confirmed cases, said Michael Cooper, the state's infectious disease program manager.
But current numbers are well above normal, he said. In May, the state received reports of 127 confirmed cases. June is on track to post similar numbers.
"There's not a concern that this will spread and get bigger, but we do want providers to be aware that we're seeing this more than we expect," Cooper said. "We don't want them to not say, 'Oh, it's June, this can't be the flu.' "
In particular, Cooper recommends that people at high risk get vaccinated, including adults over 65 and children under 5, pregnant women, and those with pre-existing medical conditions such as liver or kidney disorders.
The flu always circulates to some extent in Alaska, Cooper said. But he was hard-pressed to remember the last time there were so many cases at this time of year. Perhaps the last big summer was in 1998, he said.
"We're seeing it in pretty much every region," he said, including in rural regions like Southwest Alaska and in northern areas. But the biggest numbers have come in Anchorage and the Mat-Su Valley, with their large populations.
The number of Alaskans dying from the flu each year varies between none and a handful, Cooper said.
"The take-home point is we're seeing this at a time when we usually don't see it, so providers should keep it on their list when seeing patients, especially high-risk patients," he said.