Area flu season off to slow start

Waning vaccines still in high demand

Posted: Wednesday, December 10, 2003

It's shaping up to be a rough flu season across the country and in Alaska particularly.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have warned that this may be one of the worst years for the flu since the 1970s, and Alaska is one of 13 states with a widespread flu outbreak, the CDC's highest designation.

Four Colorado residents have died due to the disease, and influenza may be responsible for the death of a 17-year-old girl in Kotlik last week.

However, health care workers on the Kenai Peninsula say they have seen few cases of influenza this year.

"There is flu. It's documented throughout the state," said Mary Jane Hanley, a nurse at the Kenai Public Health Center. But, she added, the clinic itself has seen only a couple of cases.

Likewise, Jody Westover, a medical assistant at the MediCenter in Kenai, said his clinic has seen only a handful of cases of the flu.

"I can't recall seeing a whole bunch," he said.

Florence Anlow, a nurse at Soldotna Medical Clinic, said the flu season typically comes later in this area and that may be why so few cases have been reported.

However, it also may be due to the widespread push for influenza vaccinations.

Flu shot makers last week said they have seen an unprecedented number of vaccine orders this season, and many clinics throughout the state are running low on the injections.

In fact, the vaccines are in short supply nationwide, and no more can be made this year due to the amount of time necessary to manufacture them.

The Kenai Public Health Center already has administered about 1,700 vaccines this winter and were out of the vaccine Tuesday. Hanley said the clinic expected to have a few more doses today, but she said those likely would go fast.

The clinic is reserving its doses for high-risk patients. The remaining vaccines will be available for elderly patients, children between 6 and 35 months old, health care workers and those with chronic illnesses.

Private medical clinics on the peninsula also said they have administered many immunizations and are running low on supplies.

Westover said the MediCenter has given 51 shots in the past two days and had about 40 doses left Tuesday. He expected those to be gone by today or Thursday. The center has ordered 40 more doses, but it's not certain when they will arrive.

Anlow said the Soldotna Medical Clinic has given out about 80 shots and still has some left.

"We don't have a whole lot, but we still have some," she said. "It's going very rapidly."

Kerre Fisher, the information officer for the Alaska Division of Public Health, said her office is working to determine the availability of vaccines in the state through both public health clinics and private providers. She recommended Alaskans have the vaccines, but added that people also should take basic precautions to avoid spreading the virus.

"Nationwide, all the public health officials are trying to get out some precautions: Cover your mouth and nose, and wash your hands frequently," she said. "If you use a Kleenex, throw it away immediately. And if you have symptoms (of the flu), stay home so you don't infect others."

She said flu symptoms include fever, headache, extreme exhaustion, a persistent, dry cough and muscle aches.

High-risk patients who suspect they have the flu should see a health care provider, she said. However, because the flu is a virus, there typically is little doctors can do to treat it.

Likewise, Fisher said, not every winter illness is the flu.

"A lot of people say, 'I have the flu,' when they may have any number of respiratory illnesses," she said. The influenza vaccine only protects against the one disease, and, as this year's flu is a different strain than those seen in past years, the effectiveness of the vaccine is yet to be determined.

Bekki Jackson, a nurse at Sears Elementary School, said the area has been lucky so far in the lack of flu cases. While some schools in Alaska are nearly empty due to flu cases, Jackson said Sears' attendance is normal for this time of year.

"We certainly have more students gone this time of year than others, but it's not specifically the flu," she said, noting that strep throat also is going around right now.

Jackson said flu cases may increase as the season progresses, but she hopes the high rate of vaccinations will make a difference.

"In the past, children who had special immune-compromised conditions would get it. Now, kids who are well and healthy go for it," she said. "Hopefully, it will help or at least make the flu much less serious."

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