South Dakota State Epidemiologist Doctor Lon Kightlinger has retired after almost twenty years of work at the Department of Health. SDPB's Jeremy Ludemann spoke with Kightlinger on his last day of work in Pierre and has this report.
"It's a great honor but it's also absurd. I don't know that I deserve any proclamation or anything like that," Kightlinger says.
Governor Dennis Daugaard proclaimed Friday as Doctor Lon Kightlinger Day in South Dakota. Kightlinger was born in Eureka and was raised in Campbell and Walworth counties. He obtained a biology degree from Augustana College, then earned a master's degree in public health and a PhD in epidemiology. Kightlinger spent twenty years in Madagascar working to combat diseases like malaria before coming back home. He says his job for roughly the past two decades has been to provide public health data for legislators and his fellow South Dakotans.
"My role is very much I feel behind the scenes - I'm constantly looking at the numbers - seeing how many deaths there are, seeing how many cases they are, seeing how many events there are...and analyzing it in such a way that it'll be most meaningful and useful," Kightlinger says.
One of Kightlinger's most significant efforts has been informing South Dakotans about West Nile Virus. In 2002, he worked with SDSU professor Doctor Michael Hildreth to identify the culex tarsalis mosquito as a carrier of West Nile.
"This African virus hitting the East Coast of the United States and then in a matter of three years sweeping across the country, and killing many South Dakotans, hospitalizing hundreds of people, making thousands of people sick, and now it's an endemic disease. We have the highest rate of West Nile in any rate in the country. This African virus has unfortunately found a home in South Dakota," Kightlinger says.
Kightlinger says 73 cases of West Nile were reported in South Dakota this year. He says the rates of syphilis and obesity have gone up since he started working at the Health Department. Kightlinger says it's good news that South Dakota ranks near the top for the rate of people getting the flu vaccine and that the State's public health system focuses more on preparedness than it used to. Those tasks of looking at the numbers and educating state residents about diseases now rests on someone else's shoulders. But Kightlinger is far from done in the public health world. He plans to return to Madagascar next year as a Peace Corps volunteer.