Given the season and the fact that many families are winding down vacations and preparing for the start of school, it's understandable that most Americans have given little thought to the swine flu - or any type of influenza. Such concern, for most, is a topic left to the cold-weather months. Federal health officials, though, are paying attention - and with good reason. The number of people reported to have swine flu has increased significantly in the last fortnight.
Fortunately, the flu cases reported - most of them in Indiana and Ohio, with scattered cases in a few other states - have been mild. That's not always the case. Swine and other forms of influenza can produce widespread outbreaks of serious, even fatal, illness, though officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that is unlikely to occur at present.
Current cases of swine flu are mild and not spreading from person to person, as would be the case in an epidemic or pandemic. Public health officials report that almost all of the recently reported cases have been in children who likely had direct contact with pigs at agricultural fairs or similar events. Children, they say, are especially vulnerable to the swine flu because they have not developed antibodies to fight the swine flu virus.
The symptoms of swine flu include coughing and fever and are almost identical to ordinary influenza contacted by humans. Since almost all of the reported cases seem to have been the result of direct contact with animals , experts say the chances of widespread illness are low -- unless the transmission vector shifts from animal-to-human to human-to-human. The current remedy? Don't pet pigs at fairs or anywhere else, experts say.
The rise in number of cases at a time when swine flu is usually dormant nevertheless has caught the attention of federal health officials. While they don't think it will progress to an epidemic or pandemic situation, they are taking no chances and will be prepared if it does.
They've already produced a seed virus - the first step in formulating a vaccine - and shared it with pharmaceutical manufacturers so a serum can be tested. That's a wise precaution, even though mass production of any virus would not start unless there was evidence that the disease was spreading rapidly through human transmission. Still, it's better to have a vaccine ready for manufacture and not need it than to need a vaccine and not have a tested one ready to produce.
There is, of course, no sure-fire way to prevent the swine or any other flu. The best that can be done is to constantly monitor new cases, to remember that any flu can surge from relatively few reported cases to epidemic stage quite quickly and to educate the public about vaccines and other ways to protect one's health. For the moment, the unseasonal increase in reported swine flu cases has prompted federal and state officials to take such useful and welcome actions.