The new school year and cool weather signal more than the start of the long, slow slog into fall and winter. Both also are serving to rekindle fears of a resurgent swine flu pandemic.

The new school year and cool weather signal more than the start of the long, slow slog into fall and winter. Both also are serving to rekindle fears of a resurgent swine flu pandemic.


The virus was off the radar for most Americans throughout the summer after its abrupt appearance in April. All told, the first go-round ended up affecting more than 1 million people in the United States, based on government estimates, though after the first few weeks the reports of infections and fatalities dropped off domestically as attention turned south of our border.


The high-risk period below the equator is now wrapping up, with fewer cases and deaths than had been feared. Health officials here have spent the intervening time preparing immunization plans and worst-case-scenario options for round two, which is expected to hit in conjunction with the regular fall-winter flu season.


This H1N1 strain of flu did end up causing about 500 deaths in the U.S. - 17 of them in Illinois - which should be reason enough to take it seriously. That is not to suggest there is cause for panic, but simply a need to take reasonable precautions - conveniently the ones that physicians advise for people who catch the garden variety strain of flu.


You know the drill: Wash your hands frequently, cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough, avoid work or school until you're feeling better, go to a doctor if your symptoms persist. That last is particularly important, says Peoria City/County Health Department administrator Greg Chance, because both types of flu sport the same general symptoms.


Many Americans tend to forget that each year the ordinary flu causes some 36,000 deaths across the country, which disproportionately fall among the elderly. However, folks over age 65 are less susceptible to the swine flu. The suspicion is that most have a partial immunity from closely related strains of the virus that have cropped up over the years.


As a result, seniors aren't included in the first tier of people government officials are targeting for shots when the swine flu vaccine rolls into clinics and hospitals come October. They instead are being urged to get vaccinated against the seasonal flu. Chance says the goal this year is to get those treatments to seniors early, even before the H1N1 vaccine is available. Hopefully that will prevent problems among the elderly while clearing the decks for doctors to immunize groups at higher risk for swine flu - children, pregnant women, those with chronic health conditions - quickly once treatment is available next month.


It's obvious that a great deal of planning and money - at least $2 billion nationally on vaccines - have gone into how to treat those affected by the flu this year.


All in all, we seem about as prepared as we can be.


Peoria Journal Star