Swine Flu Cuts the Kiss in Europe

no kissing

The first news of swine flu this spring brought out the germaphobes in cultures worldwide -- the fearful in Hong Kong donned face masks, Egypt ordered the slaughter of pigs and entire schools in the United States closed their doors.

Now that the annual flu season is looming over the Northern Hemisphere, fears of the H1N1 virus are nixing some time honored cultural traditions, especially in Europe.

In France, la bise, the cheek-to-cheek peck that the French use to say hello or goodbye, is a national tradition. For the French, it's just like buying a baguette at the local boulangerie or taking their summer holiday in August.

But these days, this tradition is being put in parenthesis due to the global threat of swine flu.

Some French schools and companies are telling students and employees to avoid the social ritual out of fear the swine flu pandemic could spread as winter approaches.

The French government is not calling for an outright ban of the bise. But the Health Ministry, on its Web site dedicated to the swine flu pandemic, recommends avoiding "all direct contacts between people and particularly with sick people: do not kiss, do not shake hands (…)".

The French government has launched a broad public awareness campaign on the swine flu pandemic. TV and radio spots are informing people of the basic rules to stop the virus from spreading, such as encouraging people to wash their hands frequently or to cough into their sleeves or tissues and not into their hands.

However, the mayor of the town of Guilvinec in the western region of Brittany has banned the bise in schools.

"In the process of prevention of a flu epidemic, it was meaningless to ask children to wash their hands several times a day, to sneeze in certain conditions, to blow their nose using disposable tissues, et cetera … while, at the same time, we would let the kids keep kissing each other," Hélène Tanguy, the mayor of Guilvinec, told ABCNews.com.

Instead, the teaching staff found other alternatives to the bise, such as teaching kids that not all peoples kiss each other to say hello or goodbye. For example, kids are greeting each other by raising their hand, just like "Native Americans who don't kiss each other," Tanguy explained.

New "bise boxes" containing heart-shaped pieces of paper are meant to make up for the lack of affection provided by a kiss. "Children write their names on the piece of paper and bring it to the person they wish to kiss," the mayor said.

Swine Flu Threats in the United States

Infectious disease experts in the United States believe the French may have a point in toning down the traditional affections this year.

"I will tell you that in our medical center there are people who are touching elbows, there are people who not from the Indian subcontinent that are doing the hand clasped and bow greeting of Namaste," said Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of the department of preventive medicine at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

"I don't want the hugging police to be out there, but just to encourage people to recognize they have a role in maintaining their own health and the health of others," said Schaffner.

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