Flu strikes 90 people in Southeast, state says

Vaccination somewhat effective on most prevalent strain of virus in Alaska

Posted: Tuesday, December 09, 2003

About 90 cases of influenza have been reported in Southeast Alaska during the last month, marking an early start to what staff at the Centers for Disease Conrol say may be one of the worst flu seasons since the 1970s.

"One thing I've learned is you never try to predict what influenza is going to do," said Beth Funk, medical epidemiologist with the Alaska Division of Public Health. "We have a very active flu season so far ... but I think in Alaska we're just going to have to wait and see."

According to the state Department of Health and Social Services, 90 cases of the flu were reported between Nov. 12 and Dec. 4.

The virus affecting Alaska is known as the A Fujian virus. It closely resembles the A Panama virus contained in the vaccinations distributed by the state this year, which means the vaccination should be somewhat effective, Funk said.

The Alaska Division of Public Health has distributed 90,000 vaccines throughout the state, said Funk. The vaccinations are free to clinics, doctors' offices and hospitals that sign up for the state's vaccination program.

Offices and clinics vary in how much they charge to administer the vaccine. The Juneau Public Health Center charges $6 per adult vaccination, said Justine Muench, a public health nurse at the center.

Most of Juneau's high-risk population for influenza - including the elderly, the chronically sick and those who work with the sick - have been vaccinated for the virus already this year, said Muench. The Juneau Public Health Center already has administered nearly 2,000 vaccinations.

But lower-risk people worried about the spread of flu outbreaks in Colorado and Wyoming have been heading to clinics and doctors' offices in Juneau in large numbers in recent weeks, Muench said. The result is a late-season surge in the demand for vaccination. The vaccination season begins in October, while flu season hits its peak in February.

"We still have vaccine, as do most of the providers in town," said Muench. "The state has ordered some more."

Although the vaccine is not 100 percent effective, people traveling or hosting people for the holidays should consider getting the vaccination soon, Muench said.

"People come in and out of Juneau a lot," she said. "We travel a lot and may visit other communities where they may have a serious outbreak. You would want to be protected."

The vaccination takes seven to 10 days to take effect, Muench said.

Without the vaccination, Juneau residents risk "missing the holidays," Muench said.

"Usually people are sick for close to a week, but it can be even more," she said.

A person suffering from true influenza will have a temperature of around 103 or 104 degrees, a headache, possible body aches, a severe cough and sometimes the chills.

Gastrointestinal problems, such as diarrhea and vomiting, usually are a result of another virus and not influenza, Muench said.

Complications from the flu can result in pneumonia, which usually lands people in the hospital. If a fever from influenza persists, patients should call their doctors, Muench said.

For those who can't or don't want to get the vaccination, Muench recommends frequent hand washings and the use of alcohol-based disinfectant gels. They should also stay far away from people with a chronic cough.

"People should stay home when they're not well and they shouldn't send their kids to school if they're not well because it just spreads like wildfire," she said.

• Christine Schmid can be reached at cschmid@juneauempire.com.

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