Wave of respiratory infections zaps Juneau

Some debate whether Gold Medal tourney helped spread illness

Posted: Friday, April 01, 2005

Doctors and patients say a late-season wave of upper-respiratory infections has struck Juneau.

Nandi Than, a family physician for SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, said during the past two weeks she has had a lot of patients with a cold and bronchitis. Their symptoms range from chills to body aches to coughing.

"In our walk-in clinic, we see about three or four cases of bronchitis a day," Than said.

Bronchitis is an inflammation of the lining in the bronchial tubes, the airways that connect the trachea to the lungs. People with bronchitis usually suffer from a dry cough, chills, a headache and a fever.

Bartlett Regional Hospital's emergency room has treated an average of one to three patients for respiratory diseases during the past two weeks, said Sheryl Washburn, the hospital's patient care administrator.

Some people suspect they have had a flu, but government officials and doctors said it is unlikely.

Than said she has diagnosed only two cases of flu the past week.

"This is kind of late in the season to have a flu," she said. The flu season normally starts in October and runs through April.

Beth Funk, acting state epidemiologist, said the number of flu cases reported to the state dropped dramatically in March. In late February, the state received more than 100 reports of flu cases. There were only about 20 reports in late March.

Funk said she cannot determine what kind of virus has been making people sick in Juneau. It doesn't pay to test for cold and flu symptoms.

"Doctors normally don't send samples to the lab," Funk said. "It's expensive and it doesn't add anything because you don't treat it differently."

Than suspected that the travel and grouping for the annual Juneau Lions Club Gold Medal Basketball Tournament, which ended last week and typically brings some 3,000 people to town, might have caused a sudden surge of illnesses.

"It might just be coincidental," Than said. "But a lot of people came from outside of Juneau for the tournament. When you are in close quarters, it is easy to get a respiratory disease through handshaking, sneezing and coughing."

People who have been sick disagree about whether their illness is related to the tournament.

Monica Whitehead, owner of the maternity boutique Buddha Bellies, said both of her sons became sick last week.

"Although we didn't go to the tournament, people who came here for the tournament came to my store to buy cribs and maternity clothes," Whitehead said. "I brought my kids to work with me a lot so they might have been exposed to something."

Cheryl Moralez, who felt sick before the tournament, said the virus had been around before the tournament's March 20 start.

"You cannot blame those kids who came in," said Moralez, 50. "We probably sent them home with it."

Moralez said she began feeling sick by Jan. 26 and became so dehydrated that she went to the emergency room three days later. "It hit hard and fast," Moralez said. "It sucked all my energy."

People have developed different strategies to overcome their illnesses.

Andrew Vanderjack, a 26-year-old substitute teacher, said a 15-hour sleep and Emergen-C, a Vitamin C and mineral supplement, helped him fight a virus that lasted six days.

Scott Watts, pharmacist of Ron's Apothecary Shoppe, recommends rest, a lot of fluid and multi-vitamins. "Nothing has really changed from what our moms told us," he said.

• I-Chun Che can be reached at ichun.che@juneauempire.com.

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