Flu season arrives early

Alaska’s annual flu season has started early, with reports of increased flu activity being reported to the Alaska State Virology Laboratory, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services said last week in a press release.

“The flu is here,” said Dr. Joe McLaughlin, chief epidemiologist for Alaska.

In the past four weeks, the State Virology Laboratory has confirmed 91 cases of influenza statewide. Six confirmed cases of influenza A have been reported since Oct. 28 in the Gulf Region, the area that includes Homer and the Kenai Peninsula. Two cases of influenza-like illness also were reported at Central Peninsula Hospital, Soldotna, said Greg Wilkinson, a DHSS spokesperson.

“This is the biggest, earliest spike we’ve had in the past five years,” Wilkinson said of the statewide numbers. 

“This is early. If this is the trend, then it’s getting stronger and stronger.”

With relatively few flu cases reported in the Gulf Region, now is a good time to get the flu vaccine, Wilkinson said. Tests done on nine samples of influenza A reported show that it closely matches the vaccine for influenza A.

“Whatever it is that’s out there, our vaccine is apparently a good match,” Wilkinson said.

Vaccines can be given at local private health clinics and pharmacies. New this year are federal grant restrictions on who can get adult flu vaccines at the Homer Public Health Center. In the past, public health has offered adult flu vaccine for free or on a sliding scale. Public Health can only give vaccines to adults who have no insurance or whose insurance does not cover routine vaccines. Public Health uses flu vaccine bought with certain funds. 

Decrease in funding under the 317 Public Health Service Act resulted in the restrictions, said Gerri Yett, immunization program manager. Vaccines will be given to all adults in areas of the state that don’t have other health clinics, Yett said. Public Health is the “safety net” provider so people don’t fall through the cracks and not get coverage. Vaccines are offered to children.

In case of a pandemic, as happened with the H1N1 strain of flu that hit Alaska in 2009-2010, flu vaccine would be provided to states for free and for mass dispensing.

Kenai Peninsula School District schools have not seen a lot of flu or flu-like cases reported, said Naomi Walsworth, school district health services coordinator. A few cases have been reported, but no increase in reports.

DHSS expects to see continuing increases in flu activity as the season progresses, particularly over the holidays and people congregate and viruses spread. The federal Centers for Disease Control recommends that everyone 6 months of age and older get a seasonal flu vaccine each year. Other preventative measures include frequent hand washing, covering coughs and sneezes with a sleeve or tissue, staying home when sick and practicing good generally hygiene.

For information on flu, visit the DHSS influenza page at www.epi.hss.state.ak.us/id/influenza/fluinfo.htm.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.