The military had a role to play in the outbreak of the swine flu long before soldiers were pictured wearing protective masks and patrolling streets and infrastructure in Mexico.

In the US, it was the US Naval Health Research Center that first picked up that something was amiss on 10 April when a 10-year-old boy was brought in for testing for an influenza A strain the centre could not properly identify.

Working alongside the Center for Disease Control, the naval research body, which primarily tests military recruits, used sophisticated tests for its population-based surveillance carried out each year on borders and in military exercises as well as on new recruits.

The US Army is no stranger to swine flu. It last reared its head in 1976 at Fort Dixon, New Jersey, when a young army recruit showed symptoms – the first of what was thought to be a military outbreak.

While it was first thought more than 200 soldiers had been infected there, studies later showed that not all cases were in fact swine flu – some were normal cases of the flu virus.

Swine flu back then was targeted with a heavy vaccination programme – 40 million Americans received shots against it.

Today, it is the US Naval Health Research Center that carries out the constant monitoring of influenza cases throughout the nation. According to a report on ScienceInsider today, it is said to look at about 5,500 specimens a year.

In this case, it can be held responsible for picking up the first sign that something was wrong – a warning that could help save lives.

By Penny Jones.