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Finicky flu season so far in SD

Don't throw out the cough syrup -- flu season's not over, yet. The number of flu cases in South Dakota has dropped dramatically from last year. As of Friday, there have been only 17 confirmed cases of influenza in the state, according to statisti...

Don't throw out the cough syrup - flu season's not over, yet.

The number of flu cases in South Dakota has dropped dramatically from last year.

As of Friday, there have been only 17 confirmed cases of influenza in the state, according to statistics released by the South Dakota Department of Health. That's a fraction of the 725 cases at the same point last year, but South Dakota Department of Health State Epidemiologist Lon Kightlinger said it's not too late for influenza to strike.

"We're not over, yet. Even though we're at the end of January here, I feel the flu is still going to get us," Kightlinger said. "It's going to swarm. It does every year. It's just a matter of timing."

Kightlinger said the low numbers are unusual but not unprecedented. From October 2008 to mid-January 2009, there were 10 confirmed cases, but the number spiked to 484 by the end of May, some of which marked the beginning of the H1N1 pandemic.

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H1N1 peaked with 1,800 confirmed cases in October, the month the Department of Health considers the beginning of influenza season.

Kightlinger said H1N1 was a new virus that caused new problems. Last year's H3N2 and the few viruses that have been seen this year are "the same old viruses" the state always deals with, but that doesn't make them less dangerous.

Kightlinger said H1N1 caused 24 deaths in South Dakota. Last year, the Department of Health found 1,703 confirmed cases of H3N2, the highest since 2009, and recorded 63 influenza-related deaths. So far this season, one person has died, a Brown County resident in the 64-and-older age category.

One of the state's 17 confirmed cases has come from Davison County, according to statistics from the Department of Health's website. Pennington and Clay counties have had the most with four, followed by Lincoln County with three.

The health of Davison County can be partially credited to education, awareness and increased vaccination, according to Natalie Van Drongelen, the community health nurse for Davison County.

"The vaccine is doing what it's supposed to do," Van Drongelen said.

Van Drongelen said 1,072 people were vaccinated at the Corn Palace on Oct. 13, and 1,604 vaccinations have been given from September to December. Although the number of vaccinations will likely dwindle until next fall, Van Drongelen said she and her coworkers generally give flu shots through April.

"We never turn them down," Van Drongelen said.

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The number of confirmed cases of influenza has been similarly small across the nation, but although only 17 cases been confirmed in South Dakota so far, there likely have been far more illnesses this winter.

The South Dakota Department of Health only confirms cases that have been put through a molecular analysis or growth culture test. Many times, a clinic will have to send a sample to Pierre or Sioux Falls to have one of these tests performed.

In the vast majority of cases, doctors will perform a quick test instead, but that may produce false positives and negatives on occasion. So far, 6,838 rapid tests have been administered in South Dakota this season, Kightlinger said, and 161 have tested positive.

In many other cases, people who become sick choose to stay home instead of seeing a doctor, so there is no record of their illnesses at all.

"My rule of thumb is only 10 percent of people go to their doc," Kightlinger said. "There's probably thousands of people out there that are sick with it that are suffering with it quietly at home."

Confirmed cases probably make up around 1 percent of total cases, Kightlinger said, but South Dakota Department of Health has other methods to obtain an estimate, including death reports from hospitals and nursing homes and absentee reports from schools.

"What we see, what we report out is probably the tip of the iceberg. There's a lot more going on," Kightlinger said.

Although there has most likely been more than 17 people who have contracted the disease so far, Kightlinger said all signs still point to a mild flu season so far, significantly different than last year.

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Because officials have experienced this season's predominant viruses before, it was easier to create a vaccination that matched the influenza strains, Kightlinger said, which is always a challenge because viruses are constantly changing.

Kightlinger said the last season's vaccine was not a good match for the dominant strain, so even though the vaccination included defense against H3N2, some people who received the vaccination still contracted influenza.

"Last year, it was really a bad virus," Kightlinger said.

Van Drongelen said there are two types of influenza vaccines: trivalent, which protects against three strains, and quadrivalent, which protects against four.

Kightlinger said some people may feel pain in their arms and see their skin turn red after receiving a vaccine shot, but that should be the extent of the sickness. He said it is impossible to get influenza from an influenza vaccine.

Although the season has been mild so far, Kightlinger said the winter is not over yet.

"Once the numbers start coming in, we'll have 2,000 a week coming in. It's going to be a different picture when influenza hits," Kightlinger said.

Kightlinger encouraged everyone to receive a vaccination, saying it's not too late to protect against a potential outbreak.

"This is a tough virus, and it just sweeps through a community, mows people down, makes people sick, puts people in the hospital and kills people," he said.

Other than getting vaccinated, Kightlinger said people can protect themselves and others from the flu by washing their hands, covering their coughs and, if they get sick, staying at home.

An update will be released by Department of Health on Friday, but Kightlinger said he doesn't expect any dramatic changes just yet.

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