Alaska flu cases increased last year, spiking in early winter, while vaccine rates lagged

After a period when COVID-19 restrictions halted the spread of other respiratory diseases, Alaska had a big increase in influenza cases, state data shows.

The overall influenza case load during the 2022-23 season was much higher than in prior years, reports a new bulletin issued by the epidemiology section of the Alaska Division of Public Health. Most notably, cases spiked much earlier in the season, in November and December, before dropping.

There were five influenza deaths over the season, all among adults, according to the bulletin, the latest annual influenza summary for Alaska.

Influenza case numbers climbed nationally as well after dropping significantly during the period when emergency protections were in place to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

Preliminary estimates from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put last season’s flu burden at 27 million to 54 million, a range in line with totals from previous, pre-COVID years with relatively high case numbers. As in Alaska, the rebound in cases followed a 2020-21 season with extremely low case totals – the lowest since current reporting began in 1997, according to the CDC. That was part of a national pattern of much-reduced respiratory illness associated with pandemic protections.

Even without the influence of COVID-19 restrictions, influenza patterns can vary a lot from year to year.

In Alaska’s 2018-19 season, for example, the spike in cases came late, with a peak in February, and there were 16 adult deaths and two pediatric deaths, according to state data. In the 2011-12 season, the spike was even later, peaking in April, and there were no reported Alaska influenza pediatric deaths, according to state data.

Meanwhile, Alaskans lag the nation in influenza vaccination by a substantial margin, the bulletin reported.

Only about a quarter of Alaskans 18 and older and only 18.7% of children up to age 17 were vaccinated during the 2022-23 season, according to state data. In comparison, more than half of children and close to half of adults were vaccinated nationally during the past season, with rates up from the prior season, according to preliminary CDC figures.

Vaccines are generally recommended for all adults and for children and infants who are at least 6 months old. September and October are the best times to get the flu vaccines, according to state officials. Various types of vaccines are available in Alaska for the 2023-24 season.

The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization.


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