BELFAST: A Catholic diocese in Northern Ireland has suspended the “sign of peace” handshake in its masses due to the risk of infection from a strain of the flu first seen in Australia in the southern hemisphere’s 2017 winter.
At least 170,000 cases were confirmed at the end of the Australian winter, more than twice as many as in 2016. Health officials say they logged 72 flu-related deaths.
The H3N2 virus, which is also referred to as “Australian flu” or “Aussie flu”, has spread across the UK and Ireland in recent weeks.
A statement from the office of Bishop Noel Treanor said: “Having received medical advice concerning the increasing risk and impact of Australian flu, the diocese of Down and Connor has decided to reactivate … precautionary measures originally established by the diocese in response to the swine flu epidemic in 2009.
“All parishioners are reminded of good hygiene practice as recommended by the public health authority.
“Parishioners are encouraged to use disinfecting hand gels and hand wash soaps to minimise the risk of infection. If anyone exhibits flu-like symptoms, they should stay at home during this illness and advise their GP.
“The customary sign of peace handshake exchanged during mass is suspended until the risk of infection is significantly reduced … Other provisions will be made for those who suffer from a coeliac condition, such as separate chalices.
“Provision should be made for all ministers to use alcohol gel or wash their hands in warm soapy water before mass and after the distribution of holy communion to minimise the risk of infection.”
The diocese’s statement also paid tribute to those working within the medical field, acknowledging that “hospitals across Northern Ireland are currently experiencing high numbers of patient admissions of those suffering from respiratory illnesses directly linked to the flu virus”.
“These precautionary measures are temporary and will remain under review until the risk of infection is significantly reduced.”
The UK’s health secretary Jeremy Hunt said the H3N2 virus is straining resources at the NHS. “We’ve also got an additional pressure this year of an uptick in flu and respiratory illness which we didn’t have last year,” he told Sky News.
“It’s too early to say whether we are going to experience what they experienced in Australia. But that has undoubtedly created extra pressures on the system.”