Alaska prepares for pig flu

No cases reported yet, health officials ready to transport flu vaccine

Posted: Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Though swine flu hasn't been reported in Alaska yet, local officials have mobilized a distribution system for antiviral medications to combat the new strain of virus.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File

Alaska public health officials had 80,000 doses of antiviral medication already on hand but requested another 20,000 from the national stockpile. They should arrive in a week, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services said in a statement.

The medicine is primarily for Alaskans with flu-like symptoms, but may also be used to prevent flu in potentially exposed workers.

The United States declared a swine flu emergency over the weekend so it could ship 12 million doses of antiviral flu medication from a federal stockpile to states if needed.

The state has been organically developing its multi-agency response to emergencies like these since 2002, in response to the anthrax attacks and World Trade Center attacks of 2001, said Health and Social Services spokesman Greg Wilkinson. It started as a biological warfare response and morphed as worries of pandemic flu, avian flu or SARS arrived.

So far the system for distributing such large quantities of vaccine has only been tested during simulated drills.

"In some cases we've sent real antivirals; in other cases, we've sent boxes of M&Ms," said Wilkinson.

Judging from past drills, he expects the distribution would go smoothly.

"We're expecting a fair amount of it to show up," said Jan Beauchamp, infection prevention specialist at Bartlett Hospital in Juneau, who has participated in the drills. "It'll be interesting to see how that goes, how long that takes."

Juneau's city hospital already has detailed plans on how to deal with a flu pandemic, were it to arrive in Juneau. Those include protecting the staff as well as other patients.

But until then, it's prevention as usual at Bartlett, which is used to taking in people with fevers and respiratory ailments.

"We kind of treat people like they're guilty until proved innocent," Beauchamp said.

Travelers advised

Swine flu has now been found the United States, Spain, Canada, Scotland and Mexico, the origin of the outbreak where 149 deaths have been connected to the swine flu virus. The 48 confirmed cases in the U.S. as of Monday have been minor in comparison.

There is no global pandemic now, though the World Health Organization raised its alert level Monday to Phase 4, meaning human-to-human transmission of the virus has caused an outbreak in at least one country.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control warned travelers to avoid all but essential travel to Mexico, where the most cases have been found.

The CDC didn't issue a travel advisory to neighboring British Columbia where six cases have been confirmed, two in British Columbia and four in Nova Scotia. India and Malaysia did warn against travel to Canada, and the European Union warned travelers heading to the United States.

Extra caution

The state ferry system, which includes routes to and from Prince Rupert in British Columbia, wasn't changing any plans or operations. Department of Transportation spokesman Roger Wetherell said officials would do whatever state public health officials recommended, and noted that ships have hand sanitizer stations.

Alaska Airlines spokeswoman Bobbie Egan said passengers traveling to Mexico before May 20 could rebook their flights without paying additional fees. That's similar to what other airlines did.

The airline has 17 flights a day throughout Mexico, and its partner Horizon Air flies four times a week to Laredo, Mexico, from the U.S.

Alaska Air doesn't screen passengers for sickness. That's the responsibility of federal agencies, said Egan. But the airline was being extra vigilant about cleaning its planes and protecting its crew members. Crews in Mexico City were issued gloves and face masks.

"We're doing our part, and paying close attention to the CDC for any travel restrictions," Egan said.

Norwegian Cruise Line's 3,340-person Norwegian Star is on its way from Los Angeles to Juneau by Wednesday, and eventually to Vancouver. The cruise line said it was screening all its passengers with a health questionnaire before they board, and educating people on ships about symptoms and preventive actions. The ships were also stocking antiviral medicines, a company statement said.

What's swine flu?

Swine flu has the same symptoms as other flus: fever, sore throat, cough, stuffy nose, chills, headache, body aches, fatigue, vomiting or diarrhea. It is a strain of flu originally found in pigs that is now being transmitted between humans. Transmission is through coughing or sneezing, or people touching something with flu virus on it and then touching their mouths or noses. You can't get it from eating pork.

There's no evidence that this year's flu shot protects against swine flu, according to the state and CDC.

Most people sick with swine flu haven't required hospitalization.

"The thing that's drawing attention to it is that this is outside of the normal flu season," said Bartlett Hospital's Beauchamp. "That raises eyebrows. And the second thing is that this is a novel strain that has not been seen in North America. That fits the picture of creating a pandemic; it's always a novel strain, so people are more susceptible to it."

Preventing colds and flu

• Wash your hands often with soap and water. Use hand sanitizer if there's no soap and water.

• Cover your mouth when you sneeze. Then wash your hands.

• Stay home if you are sick. Avoid public activities for at least five days (seven for children) to prevent spreading your disease.



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