Despite outbreaks Outside, Alaska’s flu season has been normal

  • Author: Tegan Hanlon
  • Updated: January 30, 2018
  • Published January 30, 2018

Influenza vaccine in October 2017 at the city Public Health Clinic (Bill Roth / ADN)

Alaska health officials say the flu season here is "steady" and "robust" so far, but it's not alarming, as in other states.

"We're not seeing a dramatic increase right now," said Louisa Castrodale, an epidemiologist at the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.

In many other states, health officials are dealing with one of the worst flu seasons in nearly a decade. It ramped up quickly in January and led to schools closing, crowded emergency rooms and, in some cases, hospitals having to hire more staff, according to news reports.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported "high" flu activity in 39 states in the third week of January, based on the percentage of outpatient visits due to influenza-like illness. Alaska is one of three states experiencing "low" levels, according to the CDC.

Still, the Alaska health department has confirmed more flu cases during the current flu season so far than it did over the same time last year.

"It's present and it's impactful, but it's not alarming and scary," Castrodale said of the level of flu in the state.

Between September and the third week of January, the department recorded about 1,900 confirmed flu cases in Alaska — including 880 in Anchorage — a majority of them from December. Last year, there were nearly 900 cases during that time.

However, Castrodale cautioned that the numbers only represent flu cases confirmed by a doctor's visit and a lab test. They don't show with certainty just how widespread the flu really is each year.

She said the health department has recorded at least two influenza-related deaths in Alaska so far this season — both adults. During the last flu season, the department recorded at least 11 deaths and the year before, seven Alaskans died from the illness.

The health department has not received any reports of Alaska children dying from the flu this season, Castrodale said.

Nationwide, the flu season has taken an especially severe toll on children, with at least 37 dead. The pediatric death count is expected to approach, if not exceed, the 148 deaths reported during the particularly nasty 2014-15 flu season, according to The Washington Post.

In Anchorage, school nurses have not reported anything unusual about the current flu season, said Catherine Esary, Anchorage School District spokeswoman.

Officials from Alaska Regional Hospital and Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage said flu cases haven't spiked this month. Alaska Regional said it's been "a pretty normal flu season" so far.

"Providence Alaska Medical Center is seeing cases of patients with flu-like symptoms," Mikal Canfield, Providence spokesman, said. "However, there have been fewer cases in January than were seen in December and fewer cases than a year ago at this time."

In line with the national trend, Castrodale said, this year's flu season in Alaska is largely driven by a virulent strain of the virus known as H3N2. That was also the predominant strain in the 2014-15 flu season, when Alaska recorded about 1,400 confirmed flu cases between September and Jan. 20.

"Of the viruses we hate, we hate H3N2 more than the other ones," Daniel Jernigan, director of the influenza division at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told The Washington Post.

Compared to the other viruses targeted in this year's flu vaccine, the H3N2 strain is able to change more quickly to get around the body's immune system, the newspaper reported.

Castrodale said it's impossible to predict when the very unpredictable flu season will peak in Alaska this year. It's certainly not over, she said.

"There's still a number of people getting sick and having the flu," she said. "We're still in the middle of the flu season, so we don't want to say it's over until it's over."

Castrodale said Alaskans who have not gotten their flu vaccine this year still should.

The CDC recommends a flu vaccine for everyone 6 months or older as soon as possible. It takes about two weeks to produce a full immune response.