Alaska health officials say they’re tracking a modest rise in RSV, but it’s nothing like the Lower 48

a green and black microscopic image
Using indirect immunofluorescence microscopy, this photomicrograph revealed the presence of the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) in an unidentified tissue sample. (Dr. Craig Lyerla/CDC)

Alaska health officials say they’re tracking a modest increase in cases of some respiratory viruses —  but, so far, it’s 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 abrupt as what we’re seeing in the Lower 48,” he said. “But we expect that the rates will continue to increase pretty steadily here in Alaska.”

In the Lower 48, a surge in RSV 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 on children and the elderly. RSV is the most common cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children under age 1, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It causes 14,000 deaths nationwide each year among people 65 or older.

In Alaska, McLaughlinsaid the “very precipitous” rise in Lower 48 RSV cases was reflected by a smaller rise in Alaska cases. 

“I think it’s probably a harbinger of what’s to come just knowing that there’s such high activity occurring in the Lower 48 right now,” he said.

Spokespeople for two Anchorage hospitals, Providence and Alaska Regional, said they’re not seeing anything that’s out-of-the-ordinary with RSV yet.

McLaughlin said Alaska doesn’t currently require lab reporting of RSV cases, so detailed data isn’t available about infections. What the state health department does know, he said, is that about six communities across the state including Anchorage, Fairbanks Juneau and Ketchikan have reported RSV cases so far this season, with most hospitalizations in Anchorage, the Mat-Su Borough or Southeast Alaska.

He said, so far, there have been more RSV cases reported in adults than in young children, which concerns state officials due to its deadlier effects among the elderly. The virus is also more easily transmitted between adults and kids, because large droplets coughed or exhaled by infected people can contaminate surfaces. 

“This is not a disease of just children,” McLaughlin said.

Symptoms of RSV include runny nose, coughing, sneezing, fever and loss of appetite. Infants may seem irritable, said McLaughlin.

Vaccines for RSV are in development, McLaughlin said, but not yet publicly available. State officials have recommended that children at high risk for RSV this season be given doses of the monoclonal antibody palivizumab, which reduces the risk of hospitalization if they catch the virus.

Influenza rates are also on the rise in Alaska, as Lower 48 cases increase in the South and the East Coast.

Some 105 cases of flu have been reported by 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.”

Laboratory testing of this year’s flu vaccine suggests it’s a good match against this year’s most common strain, McLaughlin said. He said it’s an early flu season for Alaska and a good time to get vaccinated. 

“So I actually got my flu vaccine last week,” McLaughlin said. “So now is a really good time to get vaccinated against the flu. If you haven’t already.”

COVID-19 activity has been on a general decline across the U.S., 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 across much of Alaska is strong against the variant. 

“And so again, another good reason for people who have not yet gotten that bivalent booster and who wants to do so, but were waiting for the right time to do it,” McLaughlin said.

As with all respiratory diseases, McLaughlin recommended taking steps to prevent their spread. Those 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.

COVID-19 and flu vaccine providers can be found across Alaska and the nation on the federal website

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