More than half of the students enrolled at Rogers Park Elementary School were absent Wednesday, as state health officials say the Anchorage school is experiencing an outbreak of influenza B. 

Of the schools 506 students, 269 were absent along with 13 staff members, according to ASD Communications Director Alan Brown. He said four of the staff absences were not due to illness.

"Despite the low attendance, everything is going well at the school today," Brown wrote in an email. 

Monday night, state health officials sent an online survey to parents of sick students, requesting information about their symptoms and whether they'd been seen by a medical professional. 

State epidemiologist and chief of Alaska's Section of Epidemiology Dr. Joe McLaughlin said they received more than 140 responses enabling them to determine that the primary illness spreading at the school is influenza B — a virus several students tested positive for. 

"What we’re seeing statewide is a dramatic increase in influenza activity. Interestingly, the influenza activity is caused by a strain of influenza that is not typical this time of year, it's flu B. Usually we see influenza A that circulates early on and sort of towards the middle of our influenza epidemic that happens every year. Usually, we'll see a gradual uptick in influenza B later in the season," McLaughlin said. "This season, for reasons that are unclear, we in Alaska are seeing a dramatic increase in influenza type B. Interestingly, that’s also what’s happening nationally." 

 

The symptoms for both strains are similar, according to McLaughlin, and can include a headache, red eyes, sinusitis or runny nose, cough, sore throat, congestion in the chest, feeling fatigued, chills and a fever — one of the hallmarks of the flu. Some Rogers Park Elementary patients have experienced stomach cramps, nausea and vomiting. 

McLaughlin recommends that anyone who has not yet received a flu shot get one. 

"It is the best tool we have to protect ourselves and our loved ones from influenza and our community really," he said. 

Other preventative measures include hand and respiratory hygiene: washing hands regularly and avoiding touching of the face, as well as coughing and sneezing into an elbow. 

"When people come together for Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, there’s often a lot of sneezing and coughing going on and so we just want people to be aware that that is the primary mechanism by which influenza viruses are spread," McLaughlin said.

He said it is unclear why the school is experiencing an outbreak, but that influenza activity is on the rise across the state and anyone can become infected. 

Brown said the district isn't aware of any other schools with an "unusually high rate" of absences because of sickness. 
 
If students have any symptoms, parents are asked to keep them home to prevent anything from spreading. Brown said parents should talk with their health care provider if they're concerned about their children being infected.
 
Parents with questions can call Anchorage Health Department Public Health Nurse Drew Shannon at 907-343-4767 or the Alaska Section of Epidemiology at 907-269-8000 for more information.

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