The term “swine flu” was the punch-line of every late-night comedian’s monologue in 1976, but it’s a different world today.

The death of a soldier in New Jersey caused by swine flu prompted a national immunization campaign, because experts feared a pandemic like the Spanish flu in 1918 that killed 20 million people worldwide would erupt. But the campaign was discontinued when serious reactions to the shots caused more illness than the disease itself, which ultimately was proven to be less deadly than first believed. The soldier was the only confirmed swine flu fatality.

But for several years now, public health officials have been preparing for some rapidly mutating form of influenza to develop into a pandemic. Frankly, one seems overdue a almost a century after that last major pandemic in 1918. We dodged bullets with the less harmful the Asian flu pandemic in 1957 and the one with Hong Kong flu in 1968.

In the past decade, the attention has been on avian flu, but diseases are not always predictable. So those officials are taking very seriously the cases of swine flu reported as close to Brownwood as Guadalupe County near San Antonio. As many as 149 people in Mexico are suspected of dying from swine flu, while more than 1,000 others have become ill.

Humans usually catch swine flu from pigs, which can be immunized, but no specific vaccine exists for humans, according to Associated Press reports. Some existing medicines appear to be successful for treatment, but prevention is the best bet right now. While a seasonal flu shot doesn’t appear to offer protection, it will prevent swine flu from mixing with other strains and mutating — the foundation for a major pandemic. And washing hands frequently, covering mouths and noses when coughing and sneezing and sanitizing shared equipment like telephones and keyboards are simple but effective steps that help block the spread of infection.

Swine flu may again prove to be footnote in medical history, if enough people take those prudent steps to ensure the health of themselves and others. All residents should work to make that happen.

Brownwood Bulletin