KOTLIK: Fatality is the first this year in Alaska as vaccine supplies rapidly dwindle.
By ANN POTEMPA
Anchorage Daily News
(Published: December 6, 2003)
As officials scrambled to find more flu vaccines during an unprecedented shortage, the state health department Friday evening reported Alaska's first possible death from the flu this season.
Health officials said a 17-year-old girl from Kotlik died this week in the western Alaska village from a respiratory viral illness that resembles influenza.
Dr. Franc Fallico, the state's acting chief medical examiner, said his staff performed a preliminary autopsy Friday and learned the girl had pneumonia, which can be related to the flu.
Fallico said the death confirms the serious nature of this year's flu season. "Young women don't usually die of respiratory diseases like this," he said.
Dr. Joseph Klejka, medical director for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp., said he's seeing a lot of viral illness in that region right now. Influenza typically causes fever, cough, headache, muscle aches and fatigue.
Other states, including Colorado where six children have died, have reported deadly flu outbreaks this year. All the Colorado victims were under 16.
Fallico said state health officials are still running tests on the Kotlik girl to confirm if influenza killed her. During the past 10 years, Alaska has had at least three flu-related deaths annually, the state health department said.
The state Section of Epidemiology reported Friday that it also is struggling to find flu vaccines to meet Alaska's needs.
"We decided to do something we've never done before and try to order some more vaccine," said Dr. Beth Funk, medical epidemiologist. The state got bad news: Its main distributor had none left. On Friday, the two main manufacturers of flu vaccine for the nation announced they had both run out.
Funk said the department ordered 90,000 doses this year -- which is more than it typically orders -- but started hearing from health care providers this week that they had run out. Her staff called around and found 5,000 more doses that should arrive in Alaska next week but at a rising price.
"It probably won't meet demand," she said.
The department also is collecting about 1,000 unused doses from around the state and plans to redistribute them.
The Municipality of Anchorage's health department also is running out of vaccine. It received 3,000 adult doses earlier this fall and then an additional 300 this week, but is already down to 115, said Hisa Fallico, program manager for disease prevention and control. That's unlike past years when the department had to throw out vaccine that never got used, she said.
Klejka said he's also investigating how much vaccine remains in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.
As of Friday, the state Section of Epidemiology reported 183 cases of confirmed influenza in the state, with most of them coming from Anchorage, the Valley and the southeast part of the state.
There are likely many more cases of influenza here, she said.
"We're not out to count every single case," Funk said. "We're just out to document that flu is in a community."
The state health department is now reporting widespread influenza because it has detected laboratory-confirmed cases throughout Alaska, she said.
Funk said she's reminding health care providers that people at high risk for complications from influenza should receive the vaccine. Those people include the very young, very old and anyone with medical conditions that affect their immunity.
People should call their health care providers to find out who has remaining flu vaccines, Funk said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.