ANCHORAGE — Cases of the flu spiked in Alaska at the end of December and into January with the state-recorded count triple the number at the beginning of the season, officials said.
Despite the spike, health officials don’t think the season has peaked and are encouraging all people to get vaccinated.
“We haven’t peaked, we don’t think,” Donna Fearey, state nurse epidemiologist, told the Anchorage Daily News. “We expect to see further increase in activity.”
More than 680 Alaskans have been reported to have the flu since the infection popped up, like clockwork, in October. Alaska is one of at least 35 states where widespread flu activity is reported, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control.
This year the virulent H1N1 strain, or so-called swine flu, re-emerged as the culprit behind most flu cases nationwide. The two adult Alaskans who died from the flu at the end of December both had H1N1, state health officials said.
H1N1 puts a younger spin on flu, infecting mostly the young and middle-aged. Unlike in the 2009 pandemic, this season’s flu vaccine does cover the strain.
“The scary thing about the flu is it’s the young, healthy athlete that can also get sick,” said Dr. Mary Ann Foland of Primary Care Associates, a family medicine group with associated urgent care clinics.
Foland said she has seen a lull in flu cases over the past week and a peak back in mid-December. If the season’s flu behaves as it has in the past, she expects a second boost in February or April.
People can suffer achy muscles, high fever and difficulty breathing for up to seven days, she said. Foland said she’s even seen some vaccinated patients infected but with milder symptoms.
“We’re encouraging people who don’t want to miss a week of work to go and get their flu shot,” Foland said.
Some of the most vulnerable are Alaska Natives.
A study by state health departments after the 2009 flu outbreak found that Alaska Natives and American Indians had a death rate four times that of all other racial and ethnic groups combined.
Both medical and social factors put Natives at an increased risk for contracting the flu, said Dr. Rosalyn Singleton, immunization program director for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.
Historically, Alaska Natives have a higher rate of underlying medical conditions such as lung disease, diabetes, congestive heart failure and obesity, all of which heighten the chances of hospitalization and death from influenza, she said.
Crowded homes, a lack of running water and poor indoor air quality in rooms with wood stoves also aid in spreading the infection.
“We need to identify people in those risk categories and try to make sure they are protected,” Singleton said.