The swine flu is simply a name for a strain of the flu that originated in pigs. The influenza virus seems to like to mutate into forms that can jump from people to pigs to birds and back again; when it does so, it encounters other versions of the mutated flu virus, which allow the flu to swap some useful genes around and come up with new forms. This swapping is essential to the virus; if it stayed the same, people, pigs and birds would become immune to the virus in pretty short order, and the virus would die out. In short, the flu virus is an excellent example of evolution in action, mutating until it gets a "beneficial" mutation. Of course, what is beneficial for the virus tends to be bad news for people.
Most varieties of the flu virus are pretty similar to one another. This helps keeps the flu from spreading too rapidly, because many people's immune systems recognize the virus as a potential enemy, and mobilize rapidly. But the new strain of the swine flu is quite a bit different than most strains of the flu, which is what makes it more dangerous. Our bodies don't recognize the danger as quickly, so more people get sick, which spreads the disease more quickly and to more people than a typical flu outbreak. This means that the people most venerable to the flu, children and the elderly, are more likely to be exposed, which can lead to many more deaths than in a normal flu outbreak.
But you don't need to take draconian steps to protect yourself and your family from swine flu. The best protection you can take involves very basic things that your mom probably told you many years ago: wash your hands often, avoid large gatherings of people if you can, stay home if you are sick, go to the doctor if you come down with flu symptoms, and if you have to sneeze, cover your mouth.
Panic, on the other hand, doesn't do any good, and can do a lot of harm. Don't panic. If you come down with a little runny nose, don't go to the doctor and demand Tamiflu (or, worse yet, antibiotics, since the flu doesn't respond to antibiotics). If you are really sick, then yes, go to the doctor, and let her figure out what, if any, medication you need. If you aren't that sick, don't go to the doctor -- leave the appointment open for someone who really needs it. Besides, at the doctor's office, you're likely to run into people who are quite ill, and then you've been exposed to worse illnesses.
Other types of panic, like keeping your kids home from school, or boarding up your windows with all the plastic sheeting that Homeland Security advised us to buy several years ago, also cause more harm than good. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is constantly working on contingency plans, and they'll close a school if it is dangerous for the kids. The CDC is also the place to go to find more information about what you should and shouldn't do.
Swine flu has the potential to be a serious disease, and we shouldn't downplay its severity. But, again, panic is far worse. Stay informed, maintain personal hygiene, and go to the doctor if you are sick with the flu. Those few steps will go a long way toward combating the swine flu.
For more information on the swine flu, start with these two websites from the Centers for Disease Control:P.S. My uncle, a retired hog farmer, would be upset if I didn't also mention that YOU CANNOT GET SWINE FLU FROM EATING PORK. So, if you like to eat pork, go ahead and enjoy.