KENAI (AP) -- The cold and flu season has arrived but public health officials say the worst is probably yet to come.
State health officials report 367 cases of laboratory-confirmed influenza statewide, mostly in the Anchorage and Matanuska-Susitna areas.
''It's happening a little earlier this year, but it's within the normal influenza season,'' said Dr. Beth Funk, a medical epidemiologist with the Alaska Division of Public Health in Anchorage. ''We usually don't see many cases until late December, with peaks in January and February.''
''The flu is very serious,'' said Mary Jane Hanley, team leader for clinical services with the Division of Public Health in Kenai. ''Especially when you think of how many people will die this year from it compared to anthrax.''
Funk said influenza can damage the lungs, sinus and ears, and create an environment ideal for a secondary bacterial infection or pneumonia. While antibiotics are useless against the viral influenza, they would be effective against bacterial infections.
''For most people (with only the flu), an antibiotic will not help them,'' Funk said.
Funk said a flu shot is especially recommended for the elderly and people with underlying chronic health issues, such as diabetes or AIDS.
''They have a higher rate of complications and deaths from influenza,'' she said.
Funk said there was one less manufacturer of flu vaccines this year and some locations ran short of the shots.
Influenza A, the strain of the flu going around this year, can be confused with cold symptoms but is always marked by respiratory distress, fever and aches. Stomach ''flu'' is not influenza, and a flu shot will not prevent it.
Flu vaccines cannot reduce the severity or length of an infection if given after a person already has the disease.
There are several strains of influenza in the world, and combinations of different ones become prevalent each year. Scientists survey different locations around the globe, trying to determine which strain or strains will be most prevalent, Funk said. Scientists then try to create a vaccine appropriate for that particular strain.
Funk said there is no concrete reason the flu strikes in the winter, but said there is speculation that dry air and people occupying closer quarters causes the flu to spread quicker.
The flu is spread from one person to another through infected droplets from sneezes, sniffles and coughs.
''The biggest thing to help you avoid the flu is wash your hands a lot,'' Hanley said.
If infected, she said, the best thing to do is eat good food, drink plenty of liquids and get lots of sleep.
''All the normal things your mother told you to do.''
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