Empty desks at school and work, people hacking and coughing at medical clinics, and a run on cough syrup, tissues and pain relievers are all signs of the season — the flu season, that is. Last week, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, Division of Epidemiology, released its latest influenza report, confirming what most people already know.
“Are we in the midst of flu season? Yes,” said Greg Wilkinson, a spokesperson for DHSS.
For the week ending Nov. 30, there were 15 flu cases reported statewide.
“And then, boom, it skyrocketed,” Wilkinson said.
In December, those numbers jumped, with 55 laboratory-confirmed cases reported by Dec. 7, 77 by Dec. 14, 121 by Dec. 21, 98 by Dec. 28 and 55 by Jan. 4. Every region in the state has now reported influenza. According to the national Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, Alaska is one of 27 states reporting moderate to high flu activity, and one of 35 states with widespread flu.
In the Gulf of Alaska region, which includes Homer, 57 laboratory-confirmed cases have been reported as of Jan. 4, with 50 of those cases reported in December.
Statewide there are 472 cases. At South Peninsula Hospital, the lab screened 18 suspected patients for flu, confirming 10 cases, said Derotha Ferraro, SPH spokesperson.
The majority of flu cases tested have been H1N1, the virus that in 2009 killed a Homer woman. New laws that took effect Dec. 29 require the reporting of adult flu-related deaths. Wilkinson said two flu deaths have been reported for Alaska, one from interior Alaska, and one from the Anchorage-Matanuska-Susitna region. Death certificates now have a box to check for if a death is flu related.
“We know people die from flu-related illness every year,” Wilkinson said. “We should get a better handle on understanding how many people die from flu-related illness in the state.”
Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has received reports of severe H1N1 flu-related respiratory illness among young and middle-aged adults, including cases requiring hospitalization and intensive-care unit treatment.
Symptoms of the flu include fever, chills, cough, sore throat, a runny nose, muscle or body aches, headaches and fatigue. Flu spreads mainly through droplets made when people with the flu sneeze, cough or talk. People also can get the flu by touching something that has the flu virus on it and then touching their mouths, eyes or nose. People infected with the flu can spread it a day before developing symptoms and up to a week after becoming sick. People are usually sick from five to seven days.
People with flu symptoms should take precautions to prevent the spread of the virus: stay home, wash your hands, wear masks and avoid unnecessary contact with others. Practice sneezing and coughing into sleeves.
Flu symptoms are similar to those of the common cold, but it’s a different beast, said Dr. Brian Yablon, medical epidemiologist for DHSS.
“The common cold does not give you a high fever and body aches and give you a five- to seven-day illness like the flu,” he said. “Flu is much more like getting hit by a Mack truck. You shouldn’t try to work through the flu, because you’re going to spread it to other people, but you’re also not going to want to.”
Public health officials advise everyone six months or older to get the annual flu vaccine.
“Vaccines are the single best thing people can do to protect their own health and community health,” Dr. Yablon said.
“Getting a flu shot will either protect you from the flu or, if you get the flu, it will reduce the severity of your symptoms,” Wilkinson said.
The vaccine takes about two weeks for immunity to build up. People can feel a little feverish as the vaccine begins to work, but the vaccine does not cause the flu.
“Your body is being fooled into thinking it’s got a virus,” Wilkinson said. “It builds up antibodies to fight off the virus.”
State-supplied flu vaccine is available through Public Health clinics at no charge for children under age 3, and anyone age 3 or older who does not have health insurance, does not have health insurance covering vaccines, hasn’t met their deductible for vaccination coverage, doesn’t know if health insurance covers vaccines and who has nowhere else to go to get the vaccine. Vaccines also are available at Safeway Pharmacy for $30 in clinics from noon-5 p.m. Wednesday and by appointment 3-5 p.m. Sunday. The Seldovia Village Tribe Health Center provides vaccines on a sliding-scale basis. Medical clinics also provide vaccines, but may also charge an exam fee along with the vaccination cost.
This year’s vaccine protects against H1N1 and has been effective in keeping people from getting sick. The effectiveness of the vaccine declines over time, so even if someone got a flu shot last year that also vaccinated against H1N1, they should get a new flu shot, Dr. Yablon said.
For more information on flu in Alaska, visit the DHSS flu web page at www.flu.alaska.gov.
Michael Armstrong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.