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Alaska sees seasonal rise in rate of flu; other viruses are circulating too

  • Author: Chris Klint
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published January 9, 2017

Influenza infections in Alaska were on the rise leading up to the new year, according to state health officials, who emphasize the value of getting vaccinated — although other respiratory infections were making their way around the state as well.

Dr. Jay Butler, chief medical officer at the state Department of Health and Social Services, said rates of flu infections increased at the end of 2016. There wasn't a particularly steep rise in Anchorage or other cities, however.

"Just looking at the statewide data, I think it's fair to say there's been an increase," Butler said. "It's been a pretty mild season so far, but whether this is the start of it becoming a more severe flu season, it's too early to say."

According to Alaska flu data compiled by the Epidemiology Section at DHSS, cases reported statewide rose from 46 in October to 74 in November and 177 in December. From November to December, Southwest Alaska saw an increase from four cases to 20, while cases in the Anchorage and Mat-Su areas rose from 22 to 83.

Flu cases reported across Alaska each week to the state Department of Health and Social Services jumped from about 30 per week to about 60 per week in the second half of December 2016. (From DHSS)
A regional breakdown of Alaska flu cases in 2016’s fourth quarter shows December increases in the Anchorage/Mat-Su and Southwest regions of the state. (From DHSS)

On the plus side, Butler said, this season's flu vaccine appears particularly well-suited to the prevalent strains of the virus, which means it's more likely to be effective against them.

Various strains of common-cold virus, including coronavirus and rhinovirus, are also circulating in Alaska this season. Butler said one type of coronavirus, OC43, often produces symptoms stronger than those of other colds but weaker than a full-on flu infection.

"That's a bad cold," Butler said. "It generally doesn't cause the kind of muscle aches and — I call it the 'hit-by-a-truck' effect — influenza causes."

In addition, younger Alaska children are seeing an uptick in infections of respiratory syncytial virus, which can more severely affect infants and the elderly.

"It's not what we call a bad RSV season, but it's early yet," Butler said.

DHSS doesn't get individual case reports on norovirus, which has been on the rise in some parts of the country, although Butler said it can be spread quickly at nursing homes or during holiday travel.

"We hear about it when clusters occur," Butler said. "Of course (norovirus) can be food-borne so if people aren't particular about their hand hygiene, potlucks and (holiday) parties are places where norovirus can be spread."

The early stage of the flu season is still a good time to get a flu vaccine, Butler said, whether or not you've been down with one of this year's bugs.

"Even if you have lab-confirmed influenza, there are two types of flu — influenza A and influenza B — that are in the vaccine, so just having one type of flu isn't going to protect against the other," Butler said. "We don't know what the rest of the flu season is going to be like, so it's not too late to get vaccinated yet."

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 143 million doses of seasonal flu vaccine have been distributed. Although the CDC says nasal spray flu vaccine shouldn't be taken this season, the agency recommends flu vaccinations for anyone over the age of 6 months.