PUBLISHED: 4:12 PM on Wednesday, November 2, 2005
Not yet the season
Flu symptoms slow to appear in Alaska
For some folks in Alaska, the onset of winter means more than just dealing with snow and colder temperatures. It means dealing with the flu-one of the season's most unwelcome visitors.

Recognized by symptoms including fever, cough, a runny nose and muscle pain, the common flu can make anyone who catches it miserable.

It can also be dangerous to those with weakened immune systems, young children and the elderly.

While the best way to prevent getting the flu is to get vaccinated, people can also take precautions to protect themselves.

"We give the same advice every year," said Kate Slotnick, nurse manager at Juneau Public Health Center. "The most important things that people can do are to keep their own immune systems healthy by getting adequate rest, eating healthy foods and not getting run down. And I can't stress enough how important good hand washing is.

"It is actually much more likely that you will get sick from placing your hand on a public surface and then putting it next to your face, than you will from someone coughing on you. If someone is that ill, it's likely that you won't get that close. But because the flu can be transferred by hand contact, it's really important to practice good hygiene-it can do an awful lot to reduce your exposure."

According to Slotnick, there has been very little flu activity up to this point in Alaska.

"We don't expect the season to peak until January, so it is impossible to predict what this season will be like," she said. The good news is that unlike last year, there is plenty of flu vaccine available.

"Most doctors already have a good supply of the vaccine, SEARHC has the vaccine, and we've received our full order from the state," Slotnick said.

There also are a number of community flu clinics planned, including one Nov. 19 at Safeway. Fred Meyer pharmacy is providing flu shots by appointment.

Because the flu is fairly easily transmitted from one person to another, Slotnick advises those who do come down with the illness to stay home.

"Anybody who is coughing and sneezing in an active way should stay home instead of going in and spraying the workplace.

"A good rule of thumb is that if you are running a fever, you are significantly ill," she said.

As Alaska braces for the upcoming flu season, there is also some concern about avian or bird flu, which to date has affected 117 people in Asia, killing 60 in the last two years. Dr. Beth Funk, a medical epidemiologist for the Alaska Division of Public Health, says that Alaska is not at risk for the bird flu right now, especially as the illness is not spread from person to person.

"One of the biggest things to stress is that the bird flu doesn't spread through a community like the regular flu does," she said.

"Those people who caught this flu lived among birds in a very different culture than we see here in Alaska or in the U.S. Here we don't have chickens living in our homes, or have such large exposure to bird droppings."

Funk said H5N1 is not a human issue right now, as the illness is not spread from person to person. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is believed that most cases of bird flu infection in humans have resulted from contact with infected poultry or contaminated surfaces.

Though the state has not made specific plans to deal with the avian flu, Funk said that there are plans in place to deal with a future influenza pandemic.

A pandemic occurs when a new virus appears and is transmitted from person to person.

"We're looking at a pandemic influenza plan because it is a broader approach, and will be more useful in the long haul," Funk said.

"We know we will have a pandemic at some point, though whether it will involve a strain of the bird flu, nobody knows."

According to a news release from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, disease-monitoring systems are already in place for the detection of influenza, with all laboratories reporting positive tests to the department.

The State Public Health Virology Laboratory also identifies influenza viruses and is a member of the World Health Organization influence surveillance network. In addition, the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing home Association is working with hospitals to improve planning for medical care during a pandemic.

In order to learn more about the avian flu, researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and state and federal biologists have teamed up to form the University of Alaska Program on the Biology and Epidemiology of Avian Influenza in Alaska. Even as more research is done on how to best plan for an influenza outbreak, and how to prevent one from happening, it is important to remember that sometimes, the best advice can still be the simplest.

"We have elders that come into the clinic for the flu vaccine that lived before the advent of these antibiotics," Slotnick said.

"And they know that the best thing to do is to stay away from sick people. Reduce your exposure and it will make a difference."