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Reports of flu skyrocket in Alaska in December

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Posted: Thursday, December 26, 2013 12:15 am | Updated: 3:02 pm, Thu Dec 26, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — As doctors with the state Section of Epidemiology will tell anyone willing to listen, every flu season is different. Flu season struck Alaska this year just as people began gearing up for the holidays.

Reported incidences of influenza skyrocketed in December, according to data gathered by the state. Reported flu cases in Alaska failed to rise above 20 until the first week of December, when the department recorded more than 50.

From Dec. 1-21, the department received reports of 177 influenza infections in Alaska. The department had received only 65 total reported cases throughout the entire first few months of the flu season before that.

Flu outbreaks caused Alaska Airlines to cancel 24 of its flights around the Pacific Northwest Sunday and Monday, according to a report by the Associated Press. The airline canceled the flights because too many of its pilots and flight attendants had been hit with the flu.

Alaska Airlines spokesperson Bobbie Egan said the cancellations were because of a "very unusual" flu season affecting the airline's entire Pacific Northwest coverage area.

Donna Fearey, a nurse consultant with Alaska Epidemiology, wouldn't go as far as to claim the flu season was unusual, but did confirm that the flu has begun hitting the state hard in recent weeks.

"We're definitely on our way up, and I wouldn't be surprised for flu activity to continue to increase over the next few weeks," Fearey said. "It's hard to see when we'll peak."

Feary stressed that the department isn't able to capture every case of flu, since many people don't go to the doctor or don't receive a lab test for flu.

"Every flu season is unique," Fearey said. "Last year, we had a lot of activity in early October. This year, December it's really picking up."

Influenza A, specifically the H1N1 strain known as swine flu, has accounted for the "vast majority" of flu cases in Alaska so far in 2013, Fearey said. That trend aligns with a similarly high proportion of swine flu nationwide.

According to a Dec. 24 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the H1N1 strain affecting most of the country could disproportionately affect young and middle-aged adults.

"Although influenza activity nationally is currently at low levels, some areas of the United States are already experiencing high activity, and influenza activity is expected to increase during the next few weeks," the report states.

Public Health centers in Alaska still have flu vaccines left, said Shelly Foint-Anderson, with the Fairbanks Regional Public Health Center. Foint-Anderson urged anyone not yet vaccinated to get a flu shot.

Contact staff writer Weston Morrow at 459-7520. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMschools.

Reported Flu Cases in Alaska

September: 2

October: 16

November: 47

December (as of Saturday): 177

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