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State's first swine flu case confirmed in Fairbanks

Health Officials looking at cruise ship link, path to Alaska

Posted: Friday, May 29, 2009

Alaska has its first official case of swine flu, also known as H1N1, state health officials announced Thursday. The victim is a Fairbanks woman who since being diagnosed has fully recovered.

An investigation is now under way trying to determine how she contracted the virus and whether she may have infected anyone else, said Dr. Joe McLaughlin, a state epidemiologist.

State health officials now expect other cases in Alaska to appear.

An earlier case in Alaska was aboard the cruise ship Serenade of the Seas, which visited Juneau and other Alaska ports two weeks ago. That case was officially attributed to Washington, where it was first diagnosed and confirmed.

Health officials said they are not certain how the patient, a middle-aged woman health officials are not identifying, was exposed to the virus.

"The patient had no history of travel outside the Fairbanks area, and no known contact with a person diagnosed with H1N1," McLaughlin said.

No other member of her household has contracted swine flu, and she does not work outside the home, he said.

The woman, who is no longer contagious, has since left the state for a Caribbean vacation.

The patient earlier saw a doctor who suspected swine flu. Though a quick test came back negative, the doctor also took a swab to send to the Alaska State Public Health Virology Lab in Fairbanks.

That test confirmed the case of swine flu, the first one of 516 tests to find the virus, said Terry Schmidt, the lab's director. Many cases of normal seasonal flu were confirmed as well.

Swine flu was late to hit Alaska and West Virginia, the latter now alone in not having a confirmed case of the disease. Wednesday, Wyoming reported its first case, Schmidt said.

McLaughlin said the swine flu patient may have contracted the virus from either someone who had been outside the state, someone who had been in contact with a traveler, or it may have been circulating under the radar in the state already.

Health officials said they did not have any evidence that the Fairbanks case was linked to the Serenade of the Seas case, but that state epidemiologists would be looking at that for a possible connection.

The Serenade of the Seas case was announced by state Public Health Officer Dr. Jay Butler on May 10, as the ship was on its way to Seward after visiting Juneau and other Southeast ports.

McLaughlin said Thursday the Fairbanks woman's symptoms began approximately two weeks ago. It was difficult to precisely identify the date, he said, because the woman also suffered from allergies, which may have masked flu symptoms.

The virus is usually contagious from one day before symptoms appear to seven days after, health officials said.

Swine flu is mainly passed by coughing and sneezing, or touching an infected person or something they've touched, and then touching eyes or membranes, health officials said.

They recommended frequent hand washing, especially after sneezing, and to avoid touching the eyes, nose or mouth.

That also offers protection from the regular seasonal flu, which is just as dangerous, especially to young children and the elderly.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.



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