Alaska health officials say they’re seeing a modest increase in cases of some respiratory viruses — but so far, nothing like what other states are experiencing.
Dr. Joe McLaughlin, Alaska’s state epidemiologist, said among the viruses on the rise is respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV.
“It’s not as sudden as what we’re seeing in the Lower 48,” he said. “But we expect that rates will continue to increase fairly steadily here in Alaska.”
In the Lower 48, the RSV surge has left some children’s hospitals at or near capacity in cities including Washington, D.C., Fort Worth, Texas and Seattle. The virus causes cold-like symptoms in most people, but can have more severe effects in children and the elderly. RSV is the most common cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children younger than 1 year of age, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It causes 14,000 deaths nationwide each year among people 65 and older.
In Alaska, McLaughlin said the “very steep” rise in RSV cases in the Lower 48 was mirrored by the smaller rise in cases in Alaska.
“I think it’s probably a harbinger of what’s to come, just knowing that there’s such high activity in the Lower 48 right now,” he said.
Spokesmen at two hospitals in Anchorage, Providence and Alaska, said they have yet to see anything unusual with RSV.
McLaughlin said Alaska does not currently require laboratory reporting of RSV cases, so there is no detailed data on infections. What the state health department does know, he said, is that about six communities in the state, including Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and Ketchikan, have reported cases of RSV so far this season, with most hospitalizations in Anchorage, the Mat-Su neighborhood or Southeast Alaska.
He said so far there have been more reported cases of RSV in adults than in young children, which worries state officials because of its more deadly effects among the elderly. The virus is also more easily transmitted between adults and children because large droplets coughed up or exhaled by infected people can contaminate surfaces.
“This is not just a disease of children,” McLaughlin said.
Symptoms of RSV include a runny nose, cough, sneezing, fever, and loss of appetite. Babies may seem irritable, McLaughlin said.
Vaccines for RSV are in development, McLaughlin said, but are not yet publicly available. State officials recommended that children at high risk of RSV this season be given doses of the monoclonal antibody palivizumab, which reduces the risk of hospitalization if they catch the virus.
Flu rates are also on the rise in Alaska as Lower 48 cases increase on the South and East Coasts.
About 105 cases of the flu have been reported from labs across the state since September, according to McLaughlin. The state’s latest weekly flu snapshot shows increased flu activity in Anchorage, Juneau and Northwest Alaska, reflecting what it lists as “low levels of activity, but more than we’ve seen in recent seasons at this time.”
Lab tests of this year’s flu vaccine suggest it’s a good match for the most common strain this year, McLaughlin said. He said now is the start of flu season for Alaska and a good time to get vaccinated.
“So I actually got my flu shot last week,” McLaughlin said. “So now is a really good time to get your flu shot. If you haven’t already.”
COVID-19 activity is in general decline in the US, despite a wave of cases in Germany, France and Austria caused by its omicron BA.5 variant. McLaughlin said the bivalent booster shot, now available in much of Alaska, is strong against the variant.
“So again, another good reason for people who haven’t gotten that bivalent booster yet and who want to but have been waiting for the right time to do it,” McLaughlin said.
As with all respiratory illnesses, McLaughlin recommends taking steps to prevent their spread. These include covering coughs and sneezes, washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, and avoiding direct contact with infected people or frequently touched surfaces.
Providers of COVID-19 and influenza vaccines can be found in Alaska and the nation on the federal website vaccines.gov.
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