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Flu season off to another slow start in South Dakota

Flu season is off to a quiet start in South Dakota, but the state Department of Health is urging residents to not get complacent. Since Oct. 1 -- the official start of flu season -- there have been eight confirmed cases of influenza in South Dako...

Marlene Schafer, left, administers a flu vaccination to Dylan Richey in 2011 during a Mitchell Point of Distribution free vaccination event. (Daily Republic file photo)
Marlene Schafer, left, administers a flu vaccination to Dylan Richey in 2011 during a Mitchell Point of Distribution free vaccination event. (Daily Republic file photo)

Flu season is off to a quiet start in South Dakota, but the state Department of Health is urging residents to not get complacent.

Since Oct. 1 - the official start of flu season - there have been eight confirmed cases of influenza in South Dakota and 354 rapid-test cases, according to Lon Kightlinger, state epidemiologist for the South Dakota Department of Health. Confirmed cases are characterized by a "full-blown" set of tests, whereas the rapid-test cases involve a less extensive round of tests that can be done in the doctor's office.

Also, Kightlinger said, nine people have been hospitalized with the flu during the 2016-2017 season.

While the flu hasn't yet permeated throughout South Dakota, it's spread fasted this year than it did in 2015. Through Nov. 17, 2015, only two confirmed cases of the flu had been reported.

"Last year, it was a slow, mild year and cases peaked around March," Kightlinger said. "The flu has a mind of its own, it's a very tricky virus."

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Kightlinger said it's up to each individual doctor to determine if he or she will administer the full flu test or the rapid test, but each of the thousands of people who get sick each year won't get the full-blown test because it drains resources and takes too much time. And doctors only need a small sample of the virus to determine what the vaccine for the next year will look like.

States bordering South Dakota have reported similar statistics thus far in 2016, Kightlinger said, adding that the virus typically appears first at one of the coasts and moves inward.

The time of year the virus reaches its peak varies, and Kightlinger said the DOH isn't sure when it will happen this year. But he has little doubt it will strike eventually.

"Every year is different, but it always comes and it always hits, that's the only predictable thing," Kightlinger said. "Some years, it just hits us like a blizzard - it just comes blowing through and lasts maybe six weeks then dies away. Other years, it doesn't start then it starts slow and drags on and on until the middle of May."

The only way to prepare, Kightlinger said, is to get a flu shot. And South Dakotans do.

In 2015, South Dakota had the highest flu vaccination rate in the country, Kightlinger said. But high-risk adults - people with ailments like asthma, diabetes, cancer and lung disease - had a relatively low vaccination rate, checking in at 50 percent, which was approximately the same as adults ages 50-64 who were not high-risk.

"The only way and the best way to protect ourselves is to get a flu shot," Kightlinger said. "You should have had it already, but if you haven't, don't put it off and wait until half the town is sick. Do it now."

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