Just three days after health officials started tracking the statistic, the state has passed a grim milestone with the first confirmed adult deaths attributed to the flu.
In addition to the deaths, the state Department of Health and Social Services is tracking nearly 200 flu cases in Alaska so far this year.
Dr. Michael Cooper, an epidemiologist with DHSS, said the first adult flu death came in early December from the interior. The patient was diagnosed by the middle of the month and died last week.
Cooper said another death was reported “within the last few days” from the Anchorage/Mat-Su region. He said that it will be the first fatality counted as “part of the state’s mandated reporting” of adult flu-related deaths.
In the past, pediatric deaths related to influenza were the only flu-related casualties tracked by the state. Lab-confirmed deaths were also recorded, but on Dec. 29, the department began tracking adult deaths from the virus.
“We have no idea how many there were (in the past), but we had a good idea that they did occur,” Cooper said. "We decided that getting providers to report all flu deaths, both pediatric and adult, will give us a better snapshot of the flu burden in Alaska."
Cooper said other states also track both pediatric and adult deaths from the flu.
“It’s certainly identified as one of the biggest threats, year in, year out,” he said. “It sickens thousands of Alaskans, millions nationwide, (and) it kills thousands nationwide.”
Cooper said the best fight against the flu is getting vaccinated. To that end, the state is extending its window for free vaccines.
Public health centers have been waiving the $28 administrative fee for the flu vaccine through the end of the year. Now qualifying Alaskans can receive free immunizations through March 2014.
Free vaccines are available for children under the age of 3, and anyone age 3 and older without health insurance. Those with insurance that doesn’t cover vaccines, and others who meet certain criteria, may also be eligible. Both injections and nasal spray versions of the vaccine are offered at health centers.
Cooper said this year’s H1N1 strain of the influenza virus “seems to affect the younger cohort more than you would traditionally think,” resulting in more people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s experiencing severe symptoms and being hospitalized.
Cooper added that reports of the flu in the state have been increasing over the past three weeks, with confirmed reports from every region of the state. He said that puts Alaska “more or less on track” to see a peak in the flu season by January.