A week and half ago, my sister and brother-in-law were on their way to Hawaii for a much needed vacation. The afternoon of their departure, however, my brother-in-law started exhibiting flu-like symptoms. The security officials at LAX even commented on his symptoms as they passed through the security check. Despite the comments, they were allowed to board the plane.

During the flight, the symptoms increased in severity, leaving my brother-in-law a shivering, sneezing, coughing mess- Joe Biden’s worst nightmare. After flooding the cabin air with disease, they arrived in Hawaii and went to the emergency room. A test was done, and they were told the hospital would know in a week or so what kind of flu it was.

The next morning, they received a panicked phone call: their four-year-old daughter had come down with a high fever and then convulsions and was taken by paramedics to the emergency room. A flu had attacked her system so fast that her tiny body was in shock.

My sister and brother-in-law returned to the mainland to find all six of their children taken ill with flu symptoms. One also got a sinus infection. Another got bronchitis. Their 4-year-old was given Tamiflu. My brother-in-law was also given a dose. The hospital sent them home with their daughter, telling them it was probably just the normal flu. Everyone except the one with bronchitis eventually got better.

Then, last Friday, they called me. My brother-in-law’s test results found he had swine flu. Suddenly, the airline, the hotel in Hawaii, the hospitals, and the local health department were very interested in them. Health departments were racing to track down everyone they had had contact with, but the list was simply too vast. It included everyone on the planes, the front desk personnel at the hotel, the relatives who had come over to help, and any other people they had been in close proximity with. A day later, they found out their entire family, except for my sister, had the swine flu. By the time they knew, it was already mostly done.

Two weeks ago, the world was watching images of Mexico City residents wearing surgical masks. Some of us rolled our eyes and changed the channel, sarcastically disregarding the swine flu as another gimmick conjured by the media to improve ratings. Others braced for a worldwide pandemic. Then the authorities issued one of their oh-it-wasn’t-as-bad-as-we-thought-it-would-be statements, and the swine flu became everybody’s favorite punchline, even as the number of infected rose.

“You heard about the Egyptians killing all of the pigs in their country because of the name of the swine flu. Wasn’t that ridiculous?”

“The normal flu kills 30,000 people a year. I don’t see people freaking out about that.”

“It wasn’t as bad as we thought it would be.”

Now, two weeks later, the swine flu is rarely heard of. If you were to believe the media, you would think a killer virus had suddenly transformed into a benevolent fairy, wishing only peace and sweet dreams on the world. But, if you know anything about how viruses work, you probably know that viruses don’t become nice. They don’t disappear in the middle of an outbreak. They do run their course. And they get more vicious, evolving into a more efficient killer as they go along. If they get beat once, they come back, bigger and badder, for revenge. In short, the swine flu is alive and well, and this virus has only just begun.

While my sister said the symptoms were quite similar to normal flu, she also remarked at the swiftness with which the virus jumped from person to person and did its damage. Her husband picked it up from his students that morning and was sick that afternoon. Their children were all sick by the following day.

Paranoia may be dangerous, but ignorance is no defense. Ultimately, the truth is that the swine flu, for now, is a lot like the normal seasonal flu. The truth is also that it moves much more quickly than the normal flu because of the lack of immunity among carriers. Another truth: it is killing people. It nearly killed my niece.

Is this the next global killer? No. Not yet. Maybe never.  Can we afford to make a joke out of it and write it off as another fear tactic? No. It is not nearly that harmless. We should not laugh it off just for a dose of some false security. This thing is still in its infancy, and it would a massively tragic display of human hubris to scoff at it and believe we have dodged yet another of nature’s bullets. Mistakes like that have been known to kill thousands, sometimes millions. Those who lived during the Spanish Flu epidemic of the early 1900s learned that lesson the hard way.